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Celtics Summer Forecast: Finals destination

The Boston Celtics will shoulder the burden of heightened expectations during the 2016-17 season. That much was obvious after Day 1 of our Celtics Summer Forecast when our panel projected the team would win 54 games, a sizable six-win spike from last season's 48-win campaign. But the members of our panel really applied pressure with their postseason projections.

For Day 2 of our Celtics Summer Forecast, our 21-member panel of local bloggers was asked, "How will the 2016-17 season end for the Celtics?" Voters were given five options ranging from missing the playoffs to a trip to the NBA Finals.

A staggering 81 percent of the respondents pegged Boston to reach the Eastern Conference finals. One voter predicted a trip to the NBA Finals. In fact, none of the ballots cast predicted anything less than a trip to the second round of the playoffs.

Celtics forward Jae Crowder admitted last month that getting out of the first round of the postseason is an absolute must for a team that has been eliminated quickly each of the past two seasons. "I want to make the Eastern Conference finals," Crowder said. "But I think the goal is for sure to get out of the first round and show a big leap of improvement."

With so many uncertainties, especially health and the overall strength of the Eastern Conference, this writer is forecasting a trip to Round 2 of the playoffs. Al Horford got the Hawks to the conference semis in five of his eight playoff appearances with the team. His presence alone should steady the Celtics and ensure they move beyond the opening round. Beyond that, Boston's fate could hinge on seeding, something it didn't have the benefit of this past season after a four-way tie in the middle of the East playoff ladder.

Our panel isn't bashful with their season predictions. A sampling of the responses:

Jay King, MassLive (East finals): The East remains the Cavaliers and everyone else, but the Celtics and Raptors have distanced themselves from the rest of the field, setting up a possible Jared Sullinger revenge series in the second round. It would be entertaining to see Brad Stevens try to spread the court and force Sullinger to guard stretch power forwards, just like the Hawks did last year to force the big man to the bench throughout most of the first round. Alas, the series still would be about stopping Kyle Lowry and DeMar DeRozan, who were shaky enough during last year's playoffs that the Celtics have real hope of reaching the conference finals. They still aren't getting past LeBron James, but they're closer now and still have several ways to chase star talent in the future.

Ryan Bernardoni, CelticsHub (East semifinals): The Celtics are probably the second best team in the East, which would suggest a trip to the conference finals, but I think that's also their peak because of the Cavaliers. With that in mind, I would say the most likely outcome is one round earlier because they're closer to the chaser than the chased.

Sam Sheehan, Celtics Reddit and CLNS Radio (East finals): As the Celtics learned painfully recently, injuries and team matchup ultimately dictate most playoff series. Losing Avery Bradley early in a tough pairing with the Hawks last season can be pointed to as a reasonable excuse for a slightly disappointing postseason. This season, I feel like most reasonable fans have an opening-round series win set as the expectation for this team. That said, you don’t have to squint too hard to see a scenario in which the Celtics are back in the Eastern Conference finals less than four years removed from trading Kevin Garnett and Paul Pierce. In a weak East, it might be as simple as being lucky enough to avoid Cleveland for two rounds and staying healthy (no disrespect to the Raptors). A second-round exit is probably the smart bet, but we just passed the nine-year anniversary of the trade for KG and he believed that anything is possible.

Jeff Clark, CelticsBlog (East finals): I really like this team on paper and I think they'll grow together on the court as well. I'm also convinced that Danny Ainge is going to keep trying to land an additional piece sometime during the season, which could swing things further. My guess is that this is the season the Celtics win in the first round and they keep on winning until the conference finals.

John Karalis, Red's Army (East finals): I'm going to be optimistic here and say the Celtics' regular season will be good enough to get Boston a favorable draw. With a couple of first-round losses sticking in the Celtics' craw, another go-to player and maybe even a franchise-changing trade by then, these guys should earn the right to be steamrolled by Cleveland in late May.

Dan Greenberg, Barstool Sports (East finals): I definitely see this Celtics squad as a second-round team. If everyone stays healthy -- always a huge if -- there's no reason to think the Celtics can't finish in the top two in the East. There should be improvement on the defensive end and, with the motivation of two previous early exits, I see this as the year the Celtics finally gain some playoff traction.

Jon Duke, Celtics Stuff Live on CLNS (East finals): The 2017 Celtics will finally get over the hump and win a couple of playoff series. The presence of Horford in the middle allows the Celtics to match up well with any of their potential playoff foes and the growth from younger players -- notably Jaylen Brown, Kelly Olynyk, Marcus Smart and Terry Rozier -- will more than make up for the loss of quote Hall of Famer, Evan Turner.

Sean Penney, CelticsBlog (East finals): Danny Ainge managed to lure another All-Star to join Isaiah Thomas, but couldn't quite land the big fish that would have given the Celtics a Big Three to match the one in Cleveland. Boston should still be one of the top three teams in the East, but don't have quite enough to outlast the defending champs.

Mike Dynon, Red's Army (East finals): Being totally optimistic, if the Celtics finish second or third in the East, they'll be in position to avoid Cleveland until the conference finals. Boston has improved every year under Brad Stevens, and after landing this summer's second-best free agent (Horford), it's not unreasonable to predict the Celtics will advance past not just one but two playoff opponents. And that's based on the current roster.

Alex Kungu, CelticsBlog (East finals): A lot of this prediction depends on chemistry and how the second unit ends up coming together. The Celtics are now one of the better teams in the East. In any playoff matchup, they should be favored right up until they play the Cavaliers. Despite still having a young core, all of Boston's main guys have playoff experience and are hungry to advance. Horford allows them to put together an efficient half-court offense and will take a lot of the burden off Isaiah Thomas.

Sam Packard, WEEI.com (East finals): The Celtics are now a better basketball squadron than the Toronto Raptors. But the Cleveland Cavaliers remain the best squadron in the Eastern Conference.

Lachlan Marr, CelticsBlog (East finals): The Celtics are probably favorites to get to the Eastern Conference finals. Besides the defending champion Cavaliers, the East looks wide open, and the Celtics should be able to secure the No. 2 spot -- or at the very least a top-four finish in the East, which would set them up for a solid playoff run. Whether they can get past Cleveland is another matter entirely (one I am, sadly, less optimistic about).

Wes Howard, CelticsBlog (East finals): Getting to the Eastern Conference finals will be more difficult than popular opinion seems to think it will, but a seven-game triumph over the Raptors in the conference semifinals would be a solid benchmark by which to measure the 2016-17 season.

Jared Weiss, CLNS Radio (East finals): After underperforming with a broken team against the Hawks in last year's opening round of the playoffs, the Celtics are out to prove that they would have been the ones to give the champs a true test. On paper, Boston is neck-and-neck with Toronto to be favorites for the second seed. The Celtics will count on Horford to be healthier and more effective than he was in the playoffs last year, but the rest of the roster will develop enough this season to make their core notably better. Luckily for the Celtics, nobody else in the East has done anything to move the needle.

Jake Keaney, CelticsBlog (East finals): What other team has improved significantly enough to compete with Boston for the East’s No. 2 seed? Atlanta replaced its franchise cornerstone with Dwight Howard; the Bulls, Magic and Pacers added pieces that don’t seem to fit together; Washington and Charlotte are better than average but no more; Miami is banking its future on Hassan Whiteside’s maturity; Detroit is banking on big improvements from its young team; and New York’s dream 2011 fantasy basketball team will be a fun first-round exit.

Ben Mark, Red's Army (East finals): As currently constituted, the Celtics can challenge and beat the Torontos or Indianas or Detroits in the playoffs. If Boston can avoid Cleveland in Round 2, the Celtics likely will face one of the aforementioned teams, or whichever other Eastern team makes up the middle class of the conference. The Celtics can give Cleveland a run, but can't beat them unless they make significant roster moves.

Bill Sy, CelticsBlog (NBA Finals): Let's set aside the idea that a big trade is coming because, as is, this is a team that can make it to the NBA Finals. The East has flattened out and the champs are weaker. More importantly, Boston improved dramatically this summer. There's a reason why Kevin Durant had the Celtics on his dance card. They have specific plans on how to beat the league's best with defensive versatility and unselfishness on offense. And yeah, they can still strike a deal between now and the February trade deadline and get even better.

KWAPT, RedsArmy.com (East semifinals): Don't get me wrong, I'm very optimistic about this year's squad. But the East has improved. I'm interested to see how much playing time rookie Jaylen Brown receives. I feel like he's ready to be a contributor, but we all know rookies just don't see much PT in CelticsLand. Horford will help tremendously, but I still feel the Celtics are not quite there yet.

Mark Van Deusen, CelticsLife (East semifinals): Conference finals or bust seems to be the mantra within Celtics Nation right now and, while it's definitely a reasonable possibility, I'm not sure it's the most likely scenario for this squad. Making the leap from "good" to "elite" is a lot harder to do than improving from "mediocre" to "good." Horford was the Hawks' third-leading scorer (13.4 PPG) during last year's postseason, so it's not fair to expect him to be the crunch-time guy who carries Boston this season.

Rich Jensen, Red's Army (East finals): Boston got better over the summer and the rest of the East mostly got weirder. Toronto is the only legitimate challenger for the No. 2 seed and, like Crowder said, I don't think the Raptors are a team to be feared in the playoffs.