NBA playoff picture: Who are Celtics' most likely first-round opponents?

NBA playoff picture: Who are Celtics most likely to face in Round 1? originally appeared on NBC Sports Boston

Boston Celtics players and coaches will tell you they're taking things one game at a time. But we don't play for the Boston Celtics, which means it's time to look ahead to the postseason.

The Celtics enter Monday as the No. 2 seed in the NBA's Eastern Conference at 47-21 with just 14 regular-season games remaining. While they're essentially a lock to land a top-three seed, there's plenty to sort out, with the Milwaukee Bucks, Celtics and Philadelphia 76ers all separated by just three games.

Boston is well aware of how much seeding matters after using home court to its advantage in a Game 7 victory over the Milwaukee Bucks in Round 2 of last year's playoffs. But the Celtics also may want to pay attention to the bottom half of the playoff bracket, where there's a tight race to determine Boston's potential first-round opponent.

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Here's a breakdown of the East standings as of Monday, the Celtics' upcoming schedule and the team's most likely Round 1 opponents based on the current standings.

Eastern Conference Standings (as of March 13)

  1. Milwaukee Bucks (48-19)

  2. Boston Celtics (47-21) -- 1.5 games back

  3. Philadelphia 76ers (45-22) -- 3 GB

  4. Cleveland Cavaliers (43-27) -- 6.5 GB

  5. Brooklyn Nets (39-29) -- 9.5 GB

  6. New York Knicks (40-30) -- 9.5 GB

  7. Miami Heat (36-33) -- 13.0 GB

  8. Atlanta Hawks (34-34) -- 14.5 GB

Celtics' upcoming schedule

Next five games: at Rockets, at Timberwolves, at Trail Blazers, at Jazz, at Kings

Winning percentage of remaining opponents: .482 (23rd-toughest schedule in NBA)

First-round matchup if season ended today: Miami Heat

Short-term outlook: If the Celtics want to make a push for the No. 1 seed, the time is now. Their next four opponents are all at or below .500, and only three of their remaining 14 games are against teams with winning records (Sacramento, Milwaukee and Philadelphia). The Bucks' next two games are against top-four Western Conference teams (Sacramento and Phoenix), so this week presents a golden opportunity for Boston to gain some ground.

Celtics' potential playoff opponents

As the No. 2 seed, the Celtics would play the No. 7 seed (aka the winner of the East play-in tournament) if the season ended today.

Using Basketball Reference's "Playoff Probabilities Report," which projects the final NBA standings based on 10,000 simulations for the rest of the regular season, here are the Celtics' most likely first-round opponents by percentage (Hat tip to 98.5 The Sports Hub's Sean Grande):

The Heat have had a frustrating 2022-23 campaign after earning the East's No. 1 seed last season. This isn't the same team that was a Jimmy Butler 3-pointer away from ousting the Celtics in Game 7 of the 2022 East Finals. Miami plays hard, however, and considering the teams' recent history, Boston probably would prefer to avoid this matchup in the first round.

Atlanta would be an easier draw for the Celtics, who have won four straight against the Hawks (including a 134-125 victory Monday night) with an average margin of victory in the double digits.

Boston should do all it can to push Milwaukee for the No. 1 seed. But if the C's finish at No. 2, they should be rooting for Atlanta to win the play-in tournament to set up a favorable first-round draw with the Hawks.