On Sunday, the Boston Celtics lost their fifth game out of six since returning from the All-Star break as the Rockets strolled into TD Garden and gave them a 115-104 loss.
It followed the script of most of Boston’s recent losses, with their opponent opening up a rather healthy first half lead before a Celtics’ comeback effort falls short. Some in the locker room feel the team just isn’t playing together right now, while Brad Stevens has felt they’re trying to take shortcuts, particularly on defense. Others have disagreed with those internal critiques, all but confirming the disconnect in the locker room being real.
Boston is now two games back of the fourth seeded 76ers right now, potentially setting up the highly anticipated playoff rematch from last year’s semis in the opening round. The question with the Celtics is whether they have a proverbial switch to flip come playoff time, or if their regular season inconsistencies are more than just a lack of focus for a team whose floor is the 5-seed and a bigger problem.
The Sixers may very well be a perfect matchup for them, as they’re 3-0 against Philly this season and handled them in five games last year in the playoffs. That said Toronto and, particularly, Milwaukee present real issues for Boston, as evidenced by losses to both teams this week. For the first time all year, the Celtics weren’t able to pull themselves out of their funk against top teams as they have through much of this season, when they’ve risen to the occasion against the top teams and played down to lesser opponents. That, more than anything, may be the biggest concern of this stretch is that it highlights how difficult it is to pull yourself up to that level at any given time.
While Philadelphia may be the team at the top of the East they match up with best, it’s still not the ideal first round series since it would all but assure them as the road team in a series with Milwaukee in the second round. With each loss, however, Boston finds itself all but guaranteed to finish in the fourth or fifth spot in the East, leading to a long road to the Finals.
This may just be a slump, explainable by horrendous shooting as a team in a stretch against some very good teams that will take advantage of a team unable to consistently knock down three-pointers. However, for a team that’s struggled with inconsistency all year, one can’t help but wonder if they will continue to be a Jekyll & Hyde bunch over the course of a seven round playoff series.
There are a few tangible things that point to this being more than just a hiccup and something to be at least a bit concerned about come playoff time. One is the play of Gordon Hayward, who after a brief uptick looks, once again, to be borderline unplayable in big games. In the playoffs, rotations shorten, but whether Brad Stevens is willing to sit down his former college player and explain that he’s not a part of the postseason rotation remains to be seen.
Stevens has not handled the roster especially well this season, struggling to find the right combinations to balance minutes and soothe egos. In the postseason, this becomes even more difficult because a 10-man rotation often shrinks to eight or nine, and difficult conversations have to be had. This hasn’t been an issue in the past because Boston has had to cobble together rotations on shorthanded rosters, but having a full squad presents new challenges for Stevens that, to this point, he has not dealt with very well. The next few weeks will be crucial evaluation points for Stevens, as he and his staff figure out what they want to do in the playoffs, but he’ll have to show he’s willing to take control, make adjustments, and possibly leave some guys at the end of the bench for the betterment of the team.
Another issue that the Celtics have been battling all season is the play of Al Horford. He’s not been bad, but he’s not having the impact he has in previous years, particularly on the defensive end of the floor, where the Celtics are 3.3 points per 100 possessions better with him off the floor than on it. This year, the Celtics’ net rating with Horford on the floor is only 0.5 pp100 better than when he’s off the floor, a massive difference from a year ago when he was worth nearly 8 pp100. Instead, Boston has been at its best with Aron Baynes out there, but he’s only been able to play 519 minutes this season due to injuries — although he’s expected back soon.
The optimistic view here is that Baynes’ return allows Horford to play fewer minutes where he has to be the anchor defensively and, as such, he can be better in shorter bursts. The pessimist will wonder if a team that is supposed to have such a strong defensive identity really is that good if their play on that end depends on the presence of Aaron Baynes in the first place.
For a team that was expected to win 60-plus games and be the heir apparent in the East to LeBron James’ Cavs, this season has looked nothing like the original script. Still, they have plenty of talent and another 18 games to try and pick up some positive momentum and vibes entering the playoffs. Boston has played all season like a team that believes it just needs to get to the playoffs and, as Kyrie Irving has said, they’ll be fine because they have him.
It’s an extremely LeBron-esque view of the world from the man that’s slowly becoming the thing he hated most in Cleveland. Irving is now the veteran star leader that takes shots at his younger teammates’ effort and shrugs off regular season struggles knowing the postseason is a different world. It could pay off, but for a team that doesn’t have the playoff track record of James and his teams, it’s a bold strategy. Come April and May, Irving will either prove himself to be on that elite level as a player that can flip the switch and lift a team to being the best in their conference, or Boston will enter their offseason early and be left to reassess an awful lot.