Basketball analysts always talk about veteran teams as being able to flip a switch in the postseason and raise their level of play dramatically, and with the Boston Celtics limping into the end of the regular season with a 40-38 record, these Celtics will certainly be putting that theory to the test.
Thanks to the struggles of the Milwaukee Bucks, Boston owns a three-game lead for seventh place in the Eastern Conference and is all but locked in for a first-round tussle with the Atlantic Division rival New York Knicks.
Beyond just besting the Knicks, if the Celtics hope to make one more playoff run behind the Paul Pierce-Kevin Garnett tandem, they are going to have to beat two more conference opponents, and while that will most likely include the Miami Heat, it could potentially be any of the seven other playoff squads.
As we gear up for the most exciting stretch of NBA basketball, let's take a look at how Boston would match up with every potential Eastern Conference playoff opponent, as well as how I believe the series would turn out.
Head-to-Head Record: 3-1 Milwaukee
Given that a seventh-eighth seed matchup in the Eastern Conference is all but impossible, I won't devote much time to the less-than-exhilirating thought of a Milwaukee Bucks-Boston Celtics playoff matchup.
All four Celtics-Bucks contests have gone down to the wire except for the first, which Milwaukee won by 11 on Nov. 2. Boston defeated Milwaukee 96-92 on Nov. 10, but lost to them 91-88 on Dec. 1 and 99-94 in overtime on Dec. 21.
The fact that the two teams have not played since late December makes it difficult to predict how a matchup would go, since that Boston team was missing an elite perimeter defender in Avery Bradley and was relying heavily on Rajon Rondo on the offensive end.
Milwaukee's backcourt of Brandon Jennings and Monta Ellis boasts plenty of firepower, averaging 36.9 points and 12.6 assists per game, but neither guard shoots above 42 percent.
With Bradley and Courtney Lee guarding the perimeter, Boston should be able to force the Bucks' guard tandem into tough, low-percentage shots.
The Celtics would have their hands full with Larry Sanders manning the paint and the shooting tandem of Mike Dunleavy and J.J. Redick, but this is a Bucks team with little meaningful playoff experience, and one Boston would be able to handle relatively easily.
Hypothetical Playoff Prediction: 4-1 Boston
Head-to-Head Record: 3-1 Boston
The Boston Celtics lost just once to the Atlanta Hawks in the 2012-13 season, but it was a costly loss, as the team failed to hold on to a 27-point lead and lost Rondo to an ACL injury en route to a double-overtime defeat.
Besides that game, though, Boston has matched up well with Atlanta, using its interior play to handle a fairly small Atlanta team, and also relying on the fact that no one in a Hawks jersey can contain Paul Pierce.
Pierce notched a 20-point, 10-rebound and 10-assist triple-double in Boston's March 29 double-digit victory; had a 26-point, nine-rebound night in a Jan. 5 victory; and had a 27-point, seven-rebound, seven-assist game as Boston toppled Atlanta on March 8.
The Hawks have talent on the perimeter, but no one with the mix of size, quickness and discipline necessary to guard a wily and versatile scorer like Pierce.
Guarding Josh Smith and Al Horford for an entire playoff series will be tough, but a healthy Kevin Garnett should be able to contain Horford in the middle, while the combination of Brandon Bass and the resurgent Jeff Green should be enough to at least slow down Smith.
As long as the Celtics can goad Smith into taking outside shots. Pierce can exploit whatever matchup he has on him, and Boston can run Atlanta off the three-point line (they shoot 37.6 percent, good for fifth in the league), Boston should be able to secure a series win over Atlanta just like in 2012.
Hypothetical Playoff Prediction: 4-2 Boston
Head-to-Head Record: 2-2
Could you imagine a grittier playoff series than a Derrick Rose-less Chicago Bulls squad matching up with a Rondo-less Celtics club? Is there anyone who would enjoy watching four games of this, let alone seven?
My prediction on this series would obviously change drastically if Rose returned, and while he's still open to the idea, we're operating on the belief that he will choose to sit the 2013 playoffs and eye a return for the 2013-14 campaign's tipoff.
With Rose sidelined, the Bulls rank 29th in the league in points at 92.8 but, thanks to Tom Thibodeau, stand at third in the league in points allowed, giving up a mere 92.5 per game. In Rose's stead, big men Carlos Boozer and Joakim Noah have both stepped up their play, while Chicago has gotten an expected lift from glue guy extraordinaire Luol Deng and a surprise boost from sophomore Jimmy Butler.
Both teams are renowned for their defense and maligned for their inability to score, and this would likely be a series where the first team to 80 points wins. While the Bulls will have a tremendous advantage on the glass because of their size and strength down low, they don't have any player who can be depended on to create his own offense consistently.
Because of Chicago's methodical nature and paint presence, I would expect this to be a seven-game series either way. Without Derrick Rose, I'm taking the Celtics only because their offense, which is 19th in points at 96.3, should be able to put up more points than a Bulls team that relies on the Kirk Hinrich-Nate Robinson pairing at point guard.
Hypothetical Playoff Prediction: 4-3 Boston
Head-to-Head Record: 3-1 Brooklyn
The Brooklyn Nets franchise secured its first winning series against Boston since 2005-06 and, because of their strong core of interior players, would represent a difficult matchup for the Celtics in the postseason.
Given that Brooklyn will likely hold on to the fourth seed, this matchup would not even be possible until the second round, but the Nets boast the kind of inside-scoring presence and all-around talent that would give this beleaguered Boston team trouble in the postseason.
The Nets rank 10th in the league in boards at 43 per game, and fifth in points allowed at 94.8.
Despite routing the Nets in Brooklyn on Christmas, Boston had trouble in the teams' three other contests, losing 102-97 on Nov. 15, 95-83 on Nov. 28 and 101-93 on April 10.
Deron Williams has been playing like a man possessed since the All-Star break, averaging 22.5 points and 7.8 assists per game on 48 percent shooting, and though Bradley and Lee are talented defenders, they would struggle to shut down both Williams and Joe Johnson for an entire series.
Add to that Brook Lopez's ability to generate offense in the post and the rebounding prowess of Reggie Evans, and this Nets team simply could hurt the banged-up Celtics in too many ways to be considered a playoff underdog.
The Celtics would keep it competitive, but even with Gerald Wallace playing so poorly, this would be a tough series for Boston to win.
Hypothetical Playoff Prediction: 4-2 Brooklyn
Head-to-Head Record: 2-0 Boston (one game remaining)
For the past few weeks, I have been hoping that Boston strings together enough wins to move into the sixth seed, because a first-round matchup with the Indiana Pacers is one that they could absolutely win, even with the Pacers' stingy defense and size.
In two defeats to the Celtics, Paul George, Indiana's leading scorer, has shot just 11-of-40 and 2-of-14 from three-point range. He has rebounded and passed well, but with Danny Granger sidelined for the playoffs, the Pacers have great difficulty scoring when George is not hitting from outside or slashing effectively.
As with the Chicago Bulls, the Pacers are a sensational rebounding team, averaging the most rebounds per game of any team at 46.1, and they yield just 90.2 points per game, trailing only the Memphis Grizzlies in this category. However, they only put up 94.7 points per game, good for 22nd in the NBA.
Roy Hibbert has been on a tear recently, but he has had a largely disappointing season and would have to battle against the length of Garnett. He'll get his points, but Hibbert is not a particularly efficient center, and if the Pacers have to funnel the ball into Hibbert to produce offense, they will likely not be able to score enough to keep up with the Celtics.
The X-factor here is the backcourt; Bradley and Lee have each had a strong game against Indiana, and if they can neutralize or outplay Indiana's lineup of George Hill, D.J. Augustin and Lance Stephenson, the Celtics should have enough up front to keep up with the Pacers and steal a series.
Hypothetical Playoff Prediction: 4-3 Boston
Head-to-Head Record: 3-1 New York
Unfortunately, what looks to be one of the most difficult playoff scenarios for Boston also seems to be the likeliest. By virtue of a 13-game winning streak, New York has effectively secured itself the Eastern Conference's second seed behind Miami.
The Celtics won in Madison Square Garden when the teams squared off in January, but since then have fallen to the Knicks three times, including two losses in late March by a combined 34 points.
New York does not have an advantage on the inside, as they average just 40.6 rebounds per game (25th in the league) and have no post scorers besides Amar'e Stoudemire, who will be coming of his second significant knee surgery of the season.
However, they average 100 points per game, boast a surprisingly stingy defense that gives up just 95.6 points and have Carmelo Anthony, the league's leading scorer, playing at the highest level of his career.
While Anthony and Pierce have dueled to a draw many times before, 'Melo, who's averaging 40.6 points and 8.2 rebounds on 61.1 percent shooting overall and 58.6 percent from deep in April, is playing at a level matched only by LeBron James and Kevin Durant.
Even with Green providing help, Pierce, a year older and slower, will have trouble keeping up with Anthony, who has been playing unbelievable offensive basketball. Overall, the depleted Celtics will simply have trouble stymying the Knicks' high-powered offense, even though they should be able to contain their three-point shooting.
New York has shot 37.7 percent from three this year and attempts 28.8 long-distance shots per game. Boston, comparatively, lets opponents shoot just 33.5 percent from distance, second best in the NBA.
It should be a fascinating, tense, heated series, but one that ultimately goes to the resurgent Knicks.
Hypothetical Playoff Predictor: 4-2 New York
Head-to-Head Record: 2-1 Miami (one game remaining)
As tantalizing as another Miami Heat-Boston Celtics roller coaster would undoubtedly be, anyone hoping for an extended playoff run from the Celts should be happy Milwaukee is slumping harder than Boston.
The Heat have been resting their starters to keep them fresh for the playoffs but still boast the league's best record at 62-16. They also average 102.8 points per game (fifth in the NBA), 94.9 points given up (sixth) and 22.9 assists per game (eighth).
The Heat's Achilles' heel is the same as Boston's, though: They are a poor rebounding team, dead last at 38.4 boards per game, and finding a way to attack the glass with Garnett, Bass, Shavlik Randolph and Green would be perhaps the best way to try and beat the Heat instead of attempting to run with them.
Though Green's 43-point, seven-rebound performance in Boston's 103-105 heartbreaking loss on March 18 was sensational, he can't be expected to put up those kinds of numbers and spend chunks of time guarding James. Even in that game, James still managed a 47-point, seven-rebound, 12-assist night and simply could not be contained.
The Celtics have fought valiantly against the Heat in the last two postseasons, but this is the worst possible timing for the two, as Boston limps into the playoffs while Miami strides in with fresh legs and a hunger for a championship repeat.
Though it's hard to see Pierce not carrying Boston to a victory or two over Ray Allen and Miami, the Heat are simply too quick and too capable of pouring in points for the Celtics to pull off this kind of monumental upset.
Hypothetical Playoff Prediction: 4-2 Miami