Two steps forward, and at least one step back. That’s literally been the story of the Boston Celtics’ maddening 2020-21 season in which the green have seemingly been allergic to winning streaks of longer than two games (only two this season).
In a COVID-ravaged year in which the Celtics lead the NBA in player-days missed while in health and safety protocols, Boston has obvious reasons for their inconsistencies. And yet this team seemed like it might finally be coming out of the COVID woods before Tuesday’s showdown with the Philadelphia 76ers, only to lose recently-acquired Evan Fournier for the second time since his trade deadline arrival due to health and safety protocols.
After two games of potential progress against underwhelming opponents, the Celtics fumbled their way through yet another beatdown from Joel Embiid and the East-leading Philadelphia 76ers on Tuesday night.
Robert Williams landed in early foul trouble and was a nonfactor, leaving the team to lean on Luke Kornet and Grant Williams while Tristan Thompson works his way back from his latest COVID absence.
Jayson Tatum didn’t score for the first 13 minutes and wasn’t able to steady the Celtics when the Sixers broke the game open in the second quarter. Marcus Smart turned the ball over six times, including one painful mental lapse under his own hoop trying to receive a simple inbounds pass leading to an easy Danny Green layup that put the Sixers up 15 late in the second frame.
Here’s the reality: The Celtics have displayed little that offers confidence about what this team might accomplish in the postseason. If the regular season ended today, the Celtics would have to play the Knicks in a play-in tournament game just to earn the seventh seed in the East, which would deliver the reward of a first-round matchup with the Nets or Sixers.
Boston is essentially left crossing its fingers that its run of COVID bad luck will expire before the postseason arrives. That Tatum might look more like the star that we saw last season. That this team can harness the small glimpses of encouraging play that we’ve seen in just small spurts this season. But it certainly doesn’t look like this team will have much time to find continuity and chemistry before the postseason arrives.
More worrisome, the Celtics are 9-16 in games against teams over .500. They are an even worse 4-11 against the top four teams in each conference, including 0-5 against the Sixers and Nets. A full breakdown against the top four in each conference:
We’re tempted to note that Los Angeles was missing one of its All-Star wings in each of Boston’s wins, and the Celtics needed a little luck when Tatum banked home a winner against the Bucks on opening night. Alas, Boston has so rarely had its own group healthy that it’d be unfair to nitpick.
With little more than a month remaining in the regular season, the Celtics find themselves in a cluster of five teams within two games of each other fighting for spots No. 4 through No. 8 in the East. There is the very real chance that, if this team can pull itself together for more than a couple games at a time, Boston could surge to that fourth spot, avoid the play-in tournament, and host a first-round playoff series.
There is also the chance that Boston could continue to stumble its way into the lottery with a play-in tournament exit. To be honest, we’re not even sure if that’s the worst thing given the state of the season.
The Celtics seemingly elected to cross their fingers and hope for the best when they acquired Fournier at the trade deadline. The cost was certainly low, though it certainly took a sizable bite out of the Gordon Hayward trade exception.
To ensure they stayed below the tax and to guarantee consistent playing time for Robert Williams, the team had to move Daniel Theis, and that lack of established center depth conspired against them against Philadelphia.
There is blame at every level for Boston’s uneven ways and there are aspects like COVID that have seemingly been beyond the team’s control. It’s jarring that Boston has lost 20 more player-days than the next closest rival and nearly two thirds of the league has lost 50 player-days or less. In fact, if you total up the 10 least-impacted teams in the league, Boston has more days lost than all of them combined.
But Boston’s woes go beyond COVID. This team hasn’t come close to living up to expectations, has rarely played a familiar brand of Celtics basketball on either end, and often looks complacent with their underwhelming ways.
Maybe Tatum is still feeling the after-effects of COVID and that’s why he hasn’t been able to leave his mark like some of the league’s top young players this season. Jaylen Brown fretted Tuesday how it doesn’t make sense that he’s having to manage knee tendinitis at age 24. Kemba Walker is still dealing with his own knee issues. Smart hasn’t played to his potential on either end this year. Boston’s depth woes are exposed any time a player like Fournier is sidelined.
There’s 21 games left to find their way, to build any bit of optimism about what will happen after the middle of May. But there’s little reason to think that Boston can change its uneven ways.