If the Boston Celtics’ 2020-21 season could be summed up in a single image it would be a snapshot of Brad Stevens, arms extended at his sides with palms up, staring down at his two crumpled All-Stars clutching their right legs in the final moments of Sunday’s loss to the Portland Trail Blazers.
Jayson Tatum and Jaylen Brown got tangled trying to make a defensive play. Brown immediately grabbed at the right ankle that had left him questionable to even play on Sunday; Tatum clutched his right shin.
Evan Fournier, who would later admit he has been suffering some concussion-like symptoms while navigating his way back from COVID, walked over to check on his fallen teammates. Brown couldn’t put pressure on his right foot and hopped back to the locker room. Tatum walked gingerly behind him. Marcus Smart was already in the back after getting ejected for an unsportsmanlike groin shot to Blazers big man Jusuf Nurkic a short time earlier.
All this as the Celtics let another winnable game slip away. Boston woke up Monday to find itself back in play-in position as the No. 7 seed in the Eastern Conference. Hopes of surging to the Nos. 4 or 5 seeds are rapidly fading and health woes remain relentless for a team that, with 90.3 percent of its regular-season schedule completed, still has never had its top 7 completely healthy for a single game.
Tatum suggested he was OK after Sunday’s game. Stevens said he’ll have a better idea on Brown’s status on Tuesday. Kemba Walker, who missed his fourth straight game on Sunday, should return this week after dealing with an oblique injury.
Still, any hopes of developing continuity and cohesion before the playoffs have essentially vaporized for Boston. Walker is scheduled to sit out at least two of the team’s seven remaining games due to load management on back-to-backs. Stevens has routinely noted he’ll prioritize health over seeding, which adds a layer of complication as the Celtics strive to avoid a play-in scenario.
The Celtics’ health and consistency woes have left the team in an undesirable position. Boston’s playoff fate is largely beyond its control, at least when it comes to spots Nos. 4 and 5.
The Celtics now trail the Knicks by 2.5 games and, even as New York navigates a tough six-game west-coast trip, it’s going to be hard for Boston to pull close in so few games. A head-to-head matchup in the season finale could make things slightly more interesting.
Alas, Basketball Reference’s playoff probabilities simulations aren’t very bullish on Boston’s chances of surging. Just a couple weeks ago, Boston was upwards of 70 percent to earn the fourth or fifth spot. Those odds are down to 27.8 percent, including just an 8.4 percent chance at the No. 4 seed that would deliver home court in the first round.
PLAYOFF PROBABILITY REPORT
A look at Boston’s current seedings odds, based on Basketball Reference’s simulations:
4 - 8.4% 5 - 19.4% 6 - 40% 7 - 18.2% 8 - 8.4% 9/10 - 5.6%
Boston’s most likely landing spot is now the No. 6 seed, with 40 percent odds entering Monday’s action. That, however, hinges heavy on two head-to-head matchups with a Miami team that wiggled ahead of Boston in the standings on Sunday. Boston currently owns the head-to-head tiebreaker and would maintain that with at least a split of those two matchups in Boston on May 9 and 11. But two losses would almost certainly deliver the Celtics to the play-in tournament.
It’s also somewhat sobering to see that Boston has the same odds of landing the No. 4 seed as they do No. 8.
The good news, if you can call it that, is Boston’s 2.5-game edge on the eighth-seeded Hornets should be enough to prevent falling any further. A one-game clash, however, with the Hornets or Pacers (or even the surging Wizards) just to earn the No. 7 seed in the East is far from ideal. Especially with a first-round matchup against the 76ers or Nets as the prize for prevailing.
Then again, after watching the Bucks topple the Nets on Sunday, being the No. 6 seed might not be all that much better of a reward.
RELENTLESS HEALTH WOES
It was a bit jarring to hear Fournier open up on his post-COVID woes after Sunday’s game. After some serious shooting struggles over his first three games back, Fournier scored 21 points on 8-of-10 shooting over 34 minutes in Sunday’s loss to the Blazers.
That was encouraging, at least until he admitted he’s feeling “weird” and noted, "it’s like I have a concussion.” Pressed on playing through the fog he’s experiencing, Fournier said, "I can’t just take games off or practices off because I’m not feeling well, mentally. If my body’s available, I have to be available.”
We’ve seen instances like Walker returning from the oblique strain in Charlotte, only to miss the next four games in the aftermath. Brown played through the ankle sprain on Sunday, only to seemingly aggravate that injury at the finish line of that game. Fournier is so desperate for reps with his new team that he’s playing through a lingering haze.
We’re not even sure what the correct path forward is for the Celtics. There is always the temptation to chase wins and premium seeding but this team is not going to accomplish anything in the playoffs without sustainable health. Alas, prioritizing rest at the finish line might not even be enough to guarantee having everyone upright and feeling their best when the playoffs arrive.
That’s simply the story of the 2020-21 season for the Celtics. Watching individual players thrive at different times makes you wonder how things might have been different with better health. But in a season of relentless barriers, the Celtics have no choice but to trudge on with more obstacles ahead.