The Boston Celtics have proven that, when engaged, they might just be the best team in basketball. Even while operating at less than full health, the Celtics have routinely reserved their best basketball for the biggest moments of the season.
Alas, these Celtics have also had a maddening propensity to lose their focus, abandon the play styles that deliver their best basketball, and endure maddening losses that make you question if they are capable of achieving their loftiest goals.
The Celtics fumbled away a 28-point lead and lost by double figures to the Brooklyn Nets on Friday night. It was the largest blown lead in the NBA this season. The same Celtics who owned the Nets recently while Kevin Durant and Kyrie Irving were on the roster were flummoxed by a new-look group that posted a 1-6 record since its trade deadline overhaul.
Celtics coach Joe Mazzulla kept a straight face while suggesting this sort of effort was a “one-off” for his team. This despite being just two days removed from Boston nearly letting the Cavaliers stage an absurd late-game comeback because they tried the never-successful NBA strategy of trying to kneel out the clock with 2 minutes to play.
It simply does not feel like a one-off for these Celtics. The scariest matchups for Boston are not the showdowns with Milwaukee or Philadelphia, but the sleepy visits from the Magic, Bulls, and new-look Nets.
The Celtics were perched atop the NBA for so much of the 2022-23 season that it was easy to dismiss a letdown against an inferior opponent. Now the Bucks have ripped off 16 straight wins, Boston has slid a game back in the race for the No. 1 seed, and suddenly it’s shaping up to be a bit of a battle for that top spot over the final 18 games.
Boston can suggest seeding does not matter but history says otherwise. The Bucks punted on seeding last year only to watch Boston win the head-to-head tiebreaker and utilize homecourt in Game 7 of the Eastern Conference semifinals to prolong its season. The Celtics already rested four starters in a visit to Milwaukee last month and, despite a valiant effort from depth pieces, fell in overtime. A visit to Milwaukee on March 30 will decide who holds the tiebreaker this year.
Celtics-Nets takeaways: C's start strong, finish flat in brutal loss
If the season were to end today, the Celtics would be looking at a first-round matchup against the winner of the Heat/Hawks play-in and a second-round joust with the Philadelphia 76ers (if higher seeds prevailed). The Celtics have owned Philadelphia, so maybe that’s not a particularly daunting proposition. There’s no guarantee that drawing, say, the frisky Cleveland Cavaliers or the surging New York Knicks would be a better draw.
But the Celtics should be enticed by the idea of letting Joel Embiid and Giannis Antetokounmpo slug it out for the possible right to meet Boston in the conference finals. That might be the most ideal path forward.
All these winnable games that the Celtics let slip away could conspire against them securing that No. 1 seed. The Celtics, for the better part of two seasons now, simply have not made their lives any easier because of their inability to sustain a high level of play. Last year they at least had the excuse of COVID and injuries. This year it simply boils down to energy and focus.
Watching Robert Williams III limp off with hamstring tightness doesn’t make you feel better about the home stretch either. The Celtics starters have produced mixed results in four games together since the All-Star break and, if Williams III is sidelined for any amount of time, and Al Horford rests on the second night of four remaining back-to-backs, then there won’t be much opportunity for that group to shake additional rust.
Mazzulla is tinkering with his big-man rotation in the aftermath of a trade deadline that added Mike Muscala to the mix. Grant Williams drew a surprising DNP earlier this week, Luke Kornet had a rough night after getting thrown into the Nets game, and the Celtics remain thin on pure size.
Health has never been an excuse with this team and, if the available players are focused, Boston can still hang with anyone. But while teams like Milwaukee and New York start to hit a late-season stride, the Celtics can’t stop tripping over their shoelaces.
The Celtics can either tighten things up and head into the playoffs gushing the sort of confidence they exuded after dominating the league over the final two months of last season. Or they can continue to operate with a variable effort level and further complicate a path back to the Finals.
Friday night didn’t feel like a one-off. And the Celtics need to decide whether they’re willing to put in the effort to be great on a more consistent basis.