Celtics shouldn't fear anyone, so bring on the Sixers or Heat in Round 1

Celtics shouldn't fear anyone, so bring on the Sixers or Heat in Round 1 originally appeared on NBC Sports Boston

There's a good chance the Celtics will face either the Sixers or Heat in the first round of the 2024 NBA playoffs. To which I say: bring it.

Playoff Jimmy? Bring it. A healthy Joel Embiid? Bring it. All-Stars Bam Adebayo and Tyrese Maxey? Bring it and bring it.

After winning 64 games and running away with the NBA's best record, the Celtics shouldn't fear anyone in the first round. They should in fact welcome the challenge of either the defending conference champs or the reigning MVP.

Only a loser franchise would "hope" for the easier matchup of Chicago or Atlanta. The Celtics are out to make history, and they might as well get tested immediately. If they're not good enough to beat the last play-in team, they were never going to hang Banner 18. The Heat proved that last year.

Times have changed and this Celtics team is too good to care who it draws. If anything, the Heat and Sixers should be playing like hell on Wednesday night to avoid the Celtics, since the winner gets a more winnable matchup vs. the Knicks.

We baby the Celtics like they must follow the easiest path possible to the Finals, but since when is that any fun, or even beneficial? Only two years ago, the C's won four of their last five to claim the No. 2 seed and a supposedly scary matchup against the Nets. Some argued it would be better to finish third and surrender homecourt advantage in the conference semifinals than face Kevin Durant and Co. right away.

The Celtics took the challenge head-on and ended up with their easiest series of the postseason, sweeping the overmatched Nets after winning Game 1 at the buzzer. They needed seven games to dispatch the Bucks at home and Heat on the road before falling to the Warriors in the Finals, but the foundation for that run was laid at the feet of Kyrie Irving and friends.

This team is better than that one and shouldn't fear anyone. The Celtics boast the most complete offense in the league, with Kristaps Porzingis arriving to diversify their attack from the high post, Jrue Holiday and Derrick White bringing no-nonsense toughness and shooting to the backcourt, and Jayson Tatum and Jaylen Brown continuing to play like All-NBA superstars. Add Al Horford's experience and Payton Pritchard's emergence as a legit bench weapon, and the Celtics aren't just a little better than everyone in the East they won by 14 bleeping games, they're miles better.

That certainly includes the Heat and Sixers. Miami should never be taken for granted, especially with All-Star Jimmy Butler and head coach Erik Spoelstra a formidable postseason duo. But the Kings just showed the Warriors what happens when a younger, hungrier team faces the fading former finalists, and the Celtics should similarly handle the Heat, whom they swept this season, including a 33-point blowout in January.

There's no objective reason for trepidation except history, especially after Brad Stevens upgraded the roster so significantly. The swap of the mercurial Marcus Smart for the more grounded Holiday might swing the series alone.

The same goes for Philly, even with Embiid. Had the star center not missed half the season, the Sixers would easily be a top-four seed. The fact that they haven't lost since Embiid returned two weeks ago shows how dangerous they can be. But even at full health, Embiid has never beaten the Celtics in three postseason tries, including last year's choke job, when the Sixers blew a 3-2 lead with the series returning to Philadelphia.

The Celtics have always had an answer for Embiid, even when their roster wasn't as talented as this one. He has more 15-point playoff games vs. the Celtics (3) than 35-pointers (0). Philly's a good team, but the Celtics are deeper and better.

So don't freak out over the eighth seed.  There will be challenges this postseason, especially if former MVP Giannis Antetokounmpo gets healthy for the Bucks. At least four teams out West could win it all, too, from the reigning champion Nuggets to the experienced Clippers to the upstart Thunder and Wolves.

Those are long-term problems. In the short term, either Miami or Philly will lose on Wednesday and face the winner of Atlanta-Chicago for the right to get housed by the Celtics. Don't let the disinterested finish or occasional struggles late in games fool you. The Celtics are the class of the East, and it doesn't matter who comes to Boston for Game 1 on Saturday.

So bring it.

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