The Boston Celtics had their seven-game winning streak snapped Tuesday night in Houston during an eyesore of a game filled with whistles and free throws.
In the bigger picture, the Celtics remain on a 57-win pace and are positioned to challenge the Raptors for the coveted No. 2 spot in the Eastern Conference — assuming Toronto ever loses again.
We start this week’s Celtics Mailbag by resetting expectations for Boston’s hoopsters with nearly two-thirds of the season in the rearview mirror and the All-Star break approaching.
Earlier in the season, it felt like the Celtics' bar was set at the conference semifinals. Lately it seems more like conference finals, if not the NBA Finals. Do games like Tuesday’s loss in Houston change that?
We’ll dive a little deeper into that Rockets mess later, but let’s just say that we look at that contest a lot like opening night in Philadelphia in the sense that it was much too jagged of a game to truly pull any hard conclusions.
Zoom out, and the Celtics rank fifth in the NBA in offensive rating and third in defensive rating 53 games into the 2019-20 season. Boston is third in both net rating (plus-6.8) and point differential (plus-6.9), trailing only the conference-leading Bucks and Lakers in both categories.
ESPN’s Basketball Power Index ranks Boston fourth overall, and behind only the Bucks in the East. That computer model gives Boston a 37 percent chance of making the East finals and a 9.4 percent chance of making the NBA Finals.
Essentially, despite all their injuries, the Celtics project as a legitimate contender out of the East. Despite only scratching the surface of their potential, Boston lingers among the league’s elite.
Much of Boston’s postseason success, however, could ultimately hinge on seeding.
If the playoffs started Wednesday, Boston would be the No. 3 in the East and draw a first-round matchup with an Indiana team that could be especially dangerous once Victor Oladipo shakes his rust and the Pacers start playing to their own potential.
Even a first-round victory would still send Boston to Toronto for a second-round matchup against the defending champs, who are currently riding a 15-game wining streak. That’s a daunting path just to get to the East finals, where a potentially 70+ win Bucks team could be waiting.
All of which makes Boston's final 29 games of the season particularly important. Not only do the Celtics need a good run of health to identify roles and figure out how their pieces work best together, they'll also be jockeying for seeding.
Boston currently sits 2.5 games behind No .2 seed Toronto and two games ahead of No. 4 seed Miami. BPI projections have the Raptors finishing second in the East but the Heat a distant fourth, though it's fair to wonder if their trade deadline activity could help push their win total a little higher.
Working against Boston: The Celtics have the eighth-hardest remaining schedule in the NBA. The Raptors have the 20th-hardest, while the Heat have the 28th-hardest.
A trip to Toronto in late March and a couple games versus Miami in April will go a long way to sorting out the seeding, and that could go a long way towards deciding how the East shakes out.
Now, to the mailbag.
THE ROCKETS GAME
I would have preferred to not watch players shoot free throws for three hours. — @Jate57
Thank goodness I only have to watch them play the Rockets one more time this year. — @BSolomonsHood
I usually roll my eyes when people complain about watching the Rockets, but Tuesday night was BRUTAL. We’re admittedly curious to see if Houston’s super-small-ball approach is sustainable — we think it is in the regular season but are less bullish about the playoffs — but if it means watching James Harden and Russell Westbrook live at the charity stripe, we’ll be content to monitor this experiment from the postgame box score.
Refs were never gonna let Boston win that game … period. — @KG10247201
It’s too easy to look at a 42-25 disparity in free throws and suggest the referees dictated this game. We’d make the case that Boston’s putrid half-court offense hindered this team far more than the whistles. So did the team’s propensity for biting on pump fakes and stumbling into shooters.
The Celtics actually got a fair amount of fourth-quarter whistles and nearly fouled out Harden but he’d already done his damage during that third-quarter scoring barrage. The Rockets shot 28.9 percent beyond the 3-point arc and the Celtics bailed them out with their fouling ways. Yes, some calls were ticky-tack and we get Marcus Smart’s frustrations, but the Celtics rank 24th in the NBA in opponent free-throw attempt rate so this isn’t a one-off issue.
Why do we keep playing guys that are not 100% healthy and then watch them re-injure themselves? — @cabdulmassih
We can’t sit here and lament Boston never having all of its horses and then stomp our feet when guys try to tough it out. Brown looked plenty spry knocking down a barrage of corner 3s that helped the Celtics hang around. What’s more, the calf bruise he suffered late wasn’t connected to his ankle ailments. That said, the All-Star break undoubtedly will be helpful in letting many of these bumps and bruises heal.
THE BUYOUT MARKET
Just heard your soundbite on Felger and Mazz and I want whatever drugs you're on. Come on, dude, to say that the Celtics couldn’t get Marvin Williams because of Vincent Poirier's roster spot is so ridiculous. — @Aperez8261
Are you an idiot? We couldn’t get Marvin Williams because we didn’t want to part with Carsen Edwards or Poirier? What a joke! Felger is right about Danny Ainge, and all of you who cover the team. God forbid we get rid of those suck bags. Keep drinking the green Kool-Aid, you moron. — @ogduckboy
Twitter has to be the only place where you can routinely start a conversation with a stranger with, “Are you an idiot?” A couple of things this idiot would note:
1) I didn’t hear the bite they played but I’m guessing it’s from the conversation we had Monday on Boston Sports Tonight, when I was asked who the Celtics would most likely waive if they desired to add a buyout player. While identifying Poirier and Edwards as likely candidates, I made the point that you'd better be convinced that the player you’re adding is going to be part of your rotation before you go giving up on young players. We fully admit the jury is still very much out on what Edwards or Poirier will develop into, but if you’re going to trash all the time and energy you’ve already invested, you should at least make sure the rental player you add is going to contribute. We were fully on board with moving a depth piece at the deadline to add to this bench so we are far from anti-buyout -- but only if it’s for an impact pickup.
2) Marvin Williams chose to the go to the Bucks because Milwaukee might win 70+ games and is the clear favorite in the East. He went to Milwaukee despite Kemba Walker’s recruitment. His decision had nothing to do with Boston’s willingness to cut from the end of their roster and had everything to do with wanting to play for a surefire contender.
Why hasn’t anyone told Tatum that he needs to shave? The worst looking beard in the NBA. — @peteroneilma
Woah, woah. There’s some terrible facial hair in the NBA. The poor guy just got his beard to connect this summer. Can we let him grow it out a bit and figure out what’s next? I’m guessing he’ll be plenty cleaned up for his closeups at All-Star weekend.
Brad Wanamaker reminds me of Eddie House. — @priley212
Wanamaker is to transition buckets what House was to open 3-pointers. But steady bench players are always a luxury, particularly given the youth at the end of Boston’s roster.
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