Which opponent should scare Celtics most in NBA play-in tournament?

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Forsberg: Which team should scare C's most in play-in tournament? originally appeared on NBC Sports Boston

The Boston Celtics are locked into the No. 7 seed in the Eastern Conference and will host at least one play-in game next week with a chance to formally stamp their postseason passport.

The Charlotte Hornets, Indiana Pacers, and Washington Wizards are all potential opponents for the play-in opener. The Hornets and Pacers have matching 33-37 records, while the Wizards are a game back. Charlotte holds the head-to-head tie-breaker over both teams but a final-day matchup with Washington could factor into how the seedings shake out.

So which opponent should Boston be rooting for to land the No. 8 spot? Is there a particularly desirable matchup?

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Let’s ponder the possibilities:


Basketball Reference’s playoff probabilities simulations give the Hornets a 60.4 percent chance of earning the No. 8 seed. And given the way that Boston and Charlotte have been intertwined in recent seasons, it feels only right that these two squads could meet with a playoff berth at stake.

Why the Hornets would be a good opponent: While Boston fans might have nightmares about a Gordon Hayward revenge game, the former Celtics swingman remains sidelined by the right foot sprain he suffered in early April and his status is uncertain for the play-in tournament. The Hornets are also still waiting to get back Miles Bridges, who has been in health and safety protocols since May 4. Ever since a 125-104 thrashing of the Celtics back on April 25, the Hornets have lost 7 of their last 10 (including a rematch against Boston).

In that span, the Hornets have the 25th-ranked offense and the 24th-ranked net rating (minus-5.4). Their lack of backline size could help a Boston team thin on big-man depth while Robert Williams waits to see how his turf toe responds to a recent cortisone shot. 

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Why the Hornets would not be a good opponent: Rookie of the Year candidate LaMelo Ball is back on the court and shaking rust. The Hornets put up 39 assists against Boston in that late-April win (sans Ball) and gashed Boston for 21 3-pointers in that triumph. The Hornets have also been one of the most clutch teams in the league this season, winning 18 of their 29 clutch games (score within 5 points in final 5 minutes).

But, more than anything, their collection of former Celtics leaves them with no shortage of motivation. Terry Rozier would be licking his chops to show out against his former team. And all we can picture is Hayward limping out to the court in a walking boot, then ripping it off before a big playoff showing.


Indiana has been a sub-.500 team since mid-February and yet they’ve managed to linger in the playoff hunt despite injuries woes. Even amid reports of turmoil with first-year coach Nate Bjorkgren, the Pacers have the sort of talent that could make things prickly for opponents in a one-game battle.

Why the Pacers would be a good opponent: Myles Turner (toe) and T.J. Warren (foot) have missed extended time while five other Pacers sat out Thursday’s loss to Milwaukee. Indiana is a mere 8-10 over the last month of play and is middle of the pack this season in both offensive rating (15th, 111.8) and defense (14th, 111.8). The Pacers are 4 games under .500 heading into the final weekend and have a negative scoring differential. 

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Why the Pacers would not be a good opponent: Two words: Domantas Sabonis. Over his last eight games, Sabonis is averaging 22.8 points, 13.9 rebounds, and 11.4 assists per game while shooting 61.5 percent from the floor and 42.9 percent beyond the 3-point arc (and that’s after missing 14 shots in the Milwaukee loss). What’s more, he's adding 1.6 steals per game. Sabonis has been an absolute menace and the Celtics have limited means to slow him down. Add in a healthy Caris LeVert and the Pacers are a less-than-ideal opponent for a one-game series.


A feverish late-season surge has left the Wizards on the verge of locking up their play-in spot (barring a disaster, they’ll hold off the Bulls). Despite their underwhelming record, the Wizards have the potential NBA scoring champ (Bradley Beal) and a triple-double machine (Russell Westbrook).

Why the Wizards would be a good opponent: A 15-24 record against teams over .500 doesn’t inspire confidence (counterpoint: Boston is a meager 15-20 in that situation this year). The Wizards have only one non-overtime win in May and don’t play a whole lot of defense overall. 

Why the Wizards would not be a good opponent: Oh boy, where do we begin? Beal would certainly have some big brother-type motivation seeing fellow St. Louis product Jayson Tatum across the court. Westbrook has more than 100 games of playoff experience and is not going to be tentative on the play-in stage. Ish Smith is a certified Celtics killer. Most importantly, despite their uneven ways at the finish line, the Wizards won 15 of 19 and were one of the hottest teams for the month period spanning to May 8, all while posting a net rating of plus-5.9 in that span. 

Boston would seemingly be favored in a seven-game series against any of these three teams but a one-game matchup heightens the volatility factor. Boston will benefit from having two strikes in the play-in tournament. Alas, nothing about the way the Celtics have played against inferior competition suggests that anyone should be overly optimistic about their chances to roll through the play-in round. And far bigger challenges await even if they do advance in the East bracket.

We’re not sure there’s an ideal opponent based on Boston’s play. But Charlotte would be particularly entertaining and might be the team that Boston matches up best with based on available personnel.