As the Celtics began their climb up the standings, coach Ime Udoka said that one of the primary goals was getting above the play-in tournament that will involve teams seeded seventh through 10th in the Eastern Conference.
They have soared out of that space. The Celtics (46-28) are one game behind the first-place Heat, a half-game behind the second-place Bucks, and in a virtual tie for third with the 76ers.
But injuries and COVID absences muddied the regular-season picture a bit, and some teams at the top could get stuck with unusually difficult first-round matchups. Here is a ranking of what should be the Celtics’ preferred first-round opponents, from most favorable to least:
1. Hornets (38-36, ninth place): Charlotte almost certainly will end up in the play-in tournament, meaning it could face the Celtics only if it advances as a No. 7 or 8 seed, and Boston ends up in first or second.
The Celtics went 3-1 against the Hornets, the loss coming when Robert Williams and Marcus Smart were sidelined and before the February trades that reset the roster.
Hornets forward Gordon Hayward, the former Celtic, has been sidelined since spraining his ankle Feb. 7, and it’s unclear when he will return.
Charlotte has received a bit of a jolt since signing former Celtics All-Star Isaiah Thomas, and it entered Friday having won five of six. But this team is short on playoff experience and doesn’t have a post presence that could get Boston’s big men in foul trouble. Smart hounding LaMelo Ball in a series would not end well for Charlotte.
2. Cavaliers (41-32, tied for sixth): It may seem odd to pick a team that was recently ahead of the Celtics in the standings as their second-most-desired matchup, but this overachieving squad seems to have peaked and appears destined for the play-in tournament.
All-Star Jarrett Allen is out indefinitely with a broken finger, and there are no guarantees he’ll be back in time for a first-round series. The Cavs are 4-5 since his injury. Backup point guard Ricky Rubio was lost for the season after suffering a torn ACL in late December.
Yes, the Cavaliers did well to fortify their roster, replacing Rubio with Rajon Rondo, and adding Caris LeVert at the trade deadline. But with apologies to Darius Garland, this team doesn’t have an offensive player who strikes fear into opponents.
The Celtics went 2-1 in the season series, but those results aren’t relevant. The teams have not met since December, and both had significant absences then and have undergone major alterations since. No one fears Cleveland right now.
3. Hawks (37-37, 10th place): It’s been a disappointing season for the Hawks following their Eastern Conference finals appearance last year. But they are still loaded with talent and have fought through injuries to key pieces, and their elite offense is one of the few that can give the Celtics’ top-ranked defense fits.
The teams split the season series, 2-2, but Hawks forward John Collins sat out both of his team’s losses. In Atlanta’s two wins, Collins averaged 20.5 points, 10 rebounds, and 2.5 blocks.
In the one game when both teams were close to full strength, the Hawks roared to a 108-92 win. Atlanta’s 114.3 offensive rating ranks third in the NBA, and its plus-0.6 net rating is better than those of the Nets, Bulls, and Hornets.
If the Celtics draw this matchup, look for Udoka to pick on mismatches against Atlanta’s weak defense, seeking switches against players such as lumbering forward Danilo Gallinari.
4. Bulls (42-31, fifth place): Chicago has simply not been the same team since point guard Lonzo Ball suffered a knee injury. The Bulls were 27-13 before he was hurt and have gone 15-18 since. The tailspin has intensified, with Chicago losing five of its last six games.
Ball’s recovery is progressing more slowly than anticipated; he is not close to returning. And All-Star forward DeMar DeRozan has faded a bit after his MVP-level run. DeRozan averaged 34.2 points per game on 55.3 percent shooting in February, and is putting up 24.7 points per game on 44.7 percent shooting in March.
The teams have split two meetings, but their April 6 game in Chicago will offer a better gauge. Chicago’s 112.5 defensive rating ranks 21st in the NBA and is the worst of teams currently in the top five in either conference.
5. Raptors (41-32, tied for sixth): It seems like a lifetime ago, but the Raptors throttled the Celtics by 27 points in the TD Garden opener last October, without star forward Pascal Siakam. The Celtics bounced back and won the two meetings in November, and both teams have improved considerably since then.
Toronto, which has won seven of its last nine, rarely plays a true center but has a roster that is overflowing with versatile, athletic, tough forwards. There are rarely obvious mismatches at either end of the floor when facing the Raptors.
And Toronto has real playoff experience. Siakam and Fred VanVleet started for the NBA championship team three years ago, and OG Anunoby was a key contributor, though he missed that year’s playoffs.
The Raptors are just 18-16 at home, but they spent much of the year playing in front of reduced crowds. They returned to full capacity earlier this month.
These teams will meet in Toronto Monday.
6. Nets (38-35, eighth): Despite being in eighth place, the Nets are still the consensus second pick to win the NBA championship among Vegas oddsmakers, trailing only the 60-win Suns. Superstar forward Kevin Durant missed 27 games with injuries, and point guard Kyrie Irving has been unable to play in home games because of New York’s vaccine mandate.
But Durant is healthy, and the mandate has been lifted. Although it remains unclear whether All-Star point guard Ben Simmons will play this season, his return would give Brooklyn the NBA’s top trio.
The Nets have given themselves little margin for error, however. They’ll almost certainly need to escape the play-in tournament, then they’ll be tasked with moving on without home-court advantage in any series.
The Celtics won the season series, 3-1, but Irving and Durant missed two of those wins. Without Simmons, Brooklyn has real defensive weaknesses that the Celtics would look to exploit. They erupted for 126 points when the teams played in TD Garden March 6.
Nevertheless, the prospect of facing Durant and Irving in an opening-round playoff series is not an appealing one.