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NBA playoff picture: Who are Celtics' most likely Round 1 opponents?

NBA playoff picture: Who are Celtics' most likely Round 1 opponents? originally appeared on NBC Sports Boston

Let's get this out of the way first: The Boston Celtics will be the No. 1 seed in the Eastern Conference.

How can we say that so definitively? Well, the Celtics enter Monday with a 9.5-game lead over the No. 2 seed Milwaukee Bucks in the East. Their magic number to clinch the No. 1 seed is six, meaning they could go 6-11 over their final 15 games and still win the conference.

If the Celtics win their next four games (one of which is against Milwaukee on Wednesday) and the Bucks lose two of their next four, Boston could have the No. 1 seed wrapped up this weekend.

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So, with the drama removed from their own seeding, we can focus on who the Celtics might face in the first round of the NBA playoffs. And there's plenty of intrigue on that front.

As the No. 1 seed, Boston would draw the No. 8 seed, which under the NBA's new playoff format would be the runner-up in the East play-in tournament (aka the loser of the "winner's bracket" game). And as it stands now, a pair of high-profile teams are in the mix for that No. 8 spot.

Here's a look at the No. 6 through No. 10 seeds in the East and their odds to finish as the No. 8 seed based on Basketball Reference's "Playoff Probabilities Report," whose results are based on 10,000 game simulations (including the play-in tournament).

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The two teams that stand out, of course, are the Miami Heat and Philadelphia 76ers.

The Heat made it all the way to the East Finals as the No. 8 seed in 2023, knocking off the No. 1 seed Bucks in Round 1 and taking down the Celtics in the Eastern Conference Finals. Boston and Miami have met in three of the last four postseasons (all in the East Finals) with the Heat winning twice, so this would be challenging first-round draw for the Celtics, regardless of Miami's record entering the postseason.

The Sixers would be a less-than-ideal first-round matchup as well. They've free-fallen with Joel Embiid out of the lineup (8-13 since Feb. 1), but the reigning NBA MVP appears on track to return for the beginning of the postseason. While the Celtics have owned Philly in the playoffs (six consecutive series wins dating to 1982), this would hardly be a cakewalk in Round 1.

An ideal first-round draw for Boston would be the Chicago Bulls or Atlanta Hawks, as the Celtics are 2-0 to date against both teams.

The C's are enjoying a historic season and will be heavily favored in Round 1 regardless of opponent. But perhaps an easier first-round draw could pay off in the long run as they eye a potential NBA Finals run.