The playoff picture is almost set. At this time of the year, the teams at the top of the conferences are resting their stars, while the seventh- to ninth-place teams are making one final push to secure their spot in the postseason.
Last night’s bench-centric game against the Atlanta Hawks was Doc Rivers' way of saying, “We’re done here. See you in a week or so.”
The Celtics have come on strong the second half of the season, leaving many wondering if they have one last push in them?
Here are six playoff predictions as bold as their second-half performance.
In any sport, the cliché is that one of the most important indicators of playoff success is hitting your stride as you enter the playoffs. There is no doubt that Avery Bradley fits this description perfectly.
Since replacing Ray Allen in the starting lineup, he has been impressive. But lately, with increased minutes and responsibilities, he is starting to show tangible improvement.
In his past six games, he has averaged 20.5 points, three rebounds and 1.67 assists, and is shooting 66.7 percent from three-point range.
As the bench gets shorter during the playoffs, Bradley’s minutes will increase. This will benefit him in a couple ways. First, he will obviously get more touches, and he has proven he knows what to do when the ball is in his hands. Second, as teams are trying to lock down the offensive firepower of Paul Pierce, Kevin Garnett and Rajon Rondo, Bradley will find himself getting more open looks.
This is the reason Rondo has been able to shine brightly during the past few years, as he benefited from teams focusing on the Big Three.
If Bradley can take advantage of being the fourth option like Rondo has in the past, there is no doubt he will have as much of an impact on the game as any of the other starters.
As the season nears its end, it is starting to look like the Celtics are on an inevitable course to meet Atlanta in the playoffs once again.
If last night’s game against the Hawks showed me anything, it's that Atlanta can’t handle the Celtics’ depth and will crumble late in games.
The Celtics, playing without their three best starters (Pierce, Rondo, KG), or their sixth and seventh men (Allen and Mickael Pietrus), were able to hold the Hawks to a five-point victory.
I know that in the ''wins and losses column'' this will go down as a loss for the Celtics, but it certainly didn’t feel that way. Near the end of the game, the Celtics' reserves even had the ball with a chance to take the lead. That must have been disheartening to Joe Johnson, Josh Smith and the rest of the Hawks.
Prior to last night, the Celtics had been victorious in their previous two meetings with the Hawks. Both were close games. But the encouraging thing is that the first meeting was before the Bradley era (who just took Atlanta to task last night), and the second meeting was without Allen.
Unfortunately for Atlanta, injuries have plagued them this season. The Celtics are too deep and too talented for Johnson and Smith to handle on their own.
Four and out. Mark it down.
With two to three games left in the regular season, the playoff matchups look to be set. There may be some last-minute changes among the lower-seeded teams. However, I do not see Chicago losing to the Knicks, 76ers or Bucks.
This would result in a meeting between the Bulls and the Celtics in the second round.
As of now, the Bulls' biggest weakness is Derrick Rose, the reigning MVP.
The point-guard matchup between Rondo and Rose is one of the best in the Eastern Conference when they are healthy. Both are quick, intelligent and excellent with the ball in their hands.
But what makes Rose such a great player is his agility, speed and power, attributes that his injuries will prevent him from using against the Celtics. As a result, Rondo figures to be able to out-match Rose in almost every technical aspect of the game.
With Rose looking like he will be limited physically, Rondo would have to be given the edge in scoring, rebounding, one-on-one defending and, of course, assists. The more minutes Rose plays, the more pronounced his disadvantages will become, especially during crunch time.
If his physical game is already not at its peak, the mental lapses that come with exhaustion will destroy the Bulls, and I don’t see coach Tom Thibodeau taking Rose out at the end of games.
If the national sports pundits still want to list Rose as a better point guard than Rondo, that’s fine. But this particular series is Rondo’s for the taking.
During last year’s title run, Jason Terry was almost as important as Dirk Nowitzki for Dallas. His 30 minutes off the bench gave the Mavericks a key advantage over their competitors.
It was as if the Mavs had a sixth starter. Terry didn’t start, but he often finished the game. His shooting gave the Mavs an offensive catalyst that other teams like Los Angeles and Miami couldn’t match.
Ray Allen will be this year’s Jason Terry.
Allen has only played four games as the sixth man before aggravating his ankle. However, in those four games, he played four playoff-bound teams (Chicago, Indiana, Philadelphia and Miami), and he has looked like a sixth starter. He’s averaged about 32 minutes off the bench, and 13 points per game in those four games.
If the starters can do their part, Ray’s 32 minutes and 13 points is exactly what they need off of the bench to keep Boston in tough games.
Think Pierce is losing it in his old age? Think again.
Pierce’s regular-season averages in minutes, points, rebounds and assists are all the highest they’ve been since the 2008 season. His stats have improved each month, and his April averages reflect his regular-season numbers in the early 2000s.
Since the start of the Big Three era, Pierce has averaged around 19 points, four rebounds and three assists during the postseason.
If the recent slate of games has been a sign of things to come in the playoffs, I expect Pierce to put the offense on his shoulders and revert to his younger days. Specifically, Pierce will improve slightly on his April form and average about 25 points, seven rebounds and four assists.
The Celtics are good. Not only are they good, but if they play up to their potential, the Celtics are one of most complete teams on both sides of the ball in the East.
Miami knows it.
Technically, this could count as two "bold predictions." To get to this point, the Celtics will have to get past the Bulls. I believe the play of Rondo over Rose will go a long way to help the Celtics win that series. But I also believe Brandon Bass can out muscle Carlos Boozer on the boards, and KG has the range and physicality to get Joakim Noah off his game.
The Bulls bench might be the best in the NBA, but Allen, Pietrus and Greg Stiemsma should be able to match up with the first three off the Bulls bench.
Now, why do I think the Celtics will beat Miami? Simple. The numbers tell me they will.
Miami may be the darling in the East to most NBA analysts, but against the Celtics they are just another team.
The Celtics average almost 13 points more per game against Miami than their statistical average. Their averages also increase against the Heat in rebounds and field goal, three-point field goal and free throw percentage.
On the other side of the court, Miami’s averages in everything except three-point percentage and free throws attempted go down and are worse than Boston’s in head-to-head matchups. The most damning statistic for the Heat is their point differential. It is plus-8.3 for the season, but minus-8.5 against the Celtics.
The Boston Celtics are a better team than the Miami Heat. That’s not my opinion. It’s the cold hard statistics.