Terry Rozier and Al Horford. (Photo: Getty Images)

It feels like the biggest tease of all time.

The Boston Celtics are one win away from defeating the Milwaukee Bucks in their first-round playoff series and advancing to the second round, where they’d be taking on the No. 3-seed Philadelphia 76ers. And regardless of all the praise, Philly is getting, compared to all the hate that is being thrown at the Cleveland Cavaliers, I’d much rather avoid LeBron James in the second round if I were the Celtics.

Well, if the C’s can beat the Bucks, then they’ll avoid the Cavs until the Eastern Conference Finals. That is if either team even makes it that far.

Since it’s not LeBron waiting for the Celtics in the second round, there’s a more “wide open” feel to the East. As in, it’s anybody’s conference to win, and even though the Celtics are playing without two of their best players in Kyrie Irving and Gordon Hayward, they’ve still got a shot to make it exciting.

 

Those on the 76ers bandwagon will tell you differently. Philadelphia trusted the process and wound up beating the No. 6-seed Miami Heat in five games in the first round. Their confidence is through the roof. And some NBA “experts” believe their time could be now.

Don’t get me wrong, the 76ers are good, and they’re going to contend in the East for years to come. But I’m going to pump the brakes on some of the high praise that’s been thrown their way in recent days.

In Vegas, the Sixers are now the favorite to win the Eastern Conference, at +160, while having the third-best odds to win the NBA Championship, at +800. The favorite to win it all is Golden State, at -110, with Houston having the second-best odds, at +200.

There’s a feeling that, regardless of who they play in the second round, the 76ers will be expected to at least win that series and get to the conference finals. But the way I see it, that second-round series is still anybody’s to take.

I expect the Celtics to close out their first-round series with the Bucks. Whether that happens in Game 6 or 7, I still expect it to happen. And then, I expect the C’s — with home court advantage — to be a much tougher matchup for Philadelphia than Miami was, even without Irving.

But that’s what makes this so exciting and disappointing at the same time. If we’re currently giving the Celtics a shot to get to the Eastern Conference Finals — which I am — then imagine what this thing would look like if Irving was able to play? Or how about if both Irving and Hayward were healthy?

If Irving alone could suit up, then the Celtics would probably be exactly where Vegas has the 76ers right now: as the favorite to win the East, with the third-best odds to win the NBA Championship behind two Western Conference powerhouses in Golden State and Houston.

That would be an accurate portrayal of where the Celtics stand in the league when Irving is healthy and active. But he’s not. And yet, there’s still hope here in Boston that this team is going to make a run in the East. 

Marcus Smart’s electric return in Game 5 helped put the C’s up 3-2 in their first-round series, which just adds to the “what-could-have-been” factor. It’s also great to see youngsters like Jaylen Brown and Jayson Tatum having playoff success. When you see it though, you can’t help but think, “Imagine what it would look like with Irving on the court with them?”

It’s easy to tell someone to forget about the injuries and focus on what the team currently has. But I’m sorry, I just can’t do that. Because I know what an Irving-led Celtics team would be capable of in the current playoff picture. 

And whatever success they have without him, right now, will be nothing but a tease.

 

Listen to “The Danny Picard Show” at dannypicard.com. Follow him on Twitter @DannyPicard.