There’s no sugarcoating it. The last week and a half of Celtics basketball, starting with their 1-point overtime loss to the Houston Rockets, has been one of their worst stretches of play this entire season. On the surface, it doesn’t look all that bad. Yes, they’ve lost 4 of their last 5 games, but Houston, Oklahoma City and Utah are all good teams, and Brooklyn is always a scrappy opponent. The real problem is how they’ve lost these games, all of which have been at home, and the timing in which this poor stretch of play has occurred. From blowing big leads to atrocious late game execution, they’ve given up winnable game after winnable game at a time in which playoff seeding is more at stake than ever.
Less than a week ago, the Celtics were in a position in which a win would lift them past the Raptors and into the 2 seed that they should so desperately be trying to obtain. Fast forward a couple days, and they now sit 3 games behind Toronto in that race, and are staring a first round playoff matchup with Philadelphia dead in the face. There’s plenty of time for things to change in the conference’s seeding as there’s a very small gap between each seed from 3 to 6 right now, and Toronto’s lead for the 2 seed isn’t necessarily insurmountable, but it’s hard to be optimistic about the situation the Celtics are sitting in right now given their recent play.
During this five game stretch, Jayson Tatum has come back to earth a bit after winning Eastern Conference Player of the Month in February. He’s still been scoring at a high volume, averaging 25 per game over the last five, and his three point shot is still connecting at a fantastic 41% clip on 8.5 attempts per game, but his shooting from the field as a whole has dipped to 38% on 23 FGA per game.
Kemba Walker’s return from knee soreness was supposed to help take some of the load off of Tatum, but he’s looked nothing like his usual self in his return, and the shooting woes that he was experiencing in the few games before the All-Star break have continued to plague him.
It’s hard to get too worried about a player like Kemba in terms of whether or not this will be a long-term issue for him, but this team doesn’t have the luxury of banking on the long term when playoff seeding is as important as it is.
If there’s any silver lining in this recent stretch, it’s that the Celtics haven’t been at full strength for any of the last five games. Jaylen Brown has missed the last three games, Kemba missed games against Houston and Cleveland, Tatum missed the game against Brooklyn and Hayward missed games against Cleveland and Utah. The question is, however, how long can we stop using this team’s injury woes as an excuse? At what point do we have to stop banking on the dream scenario in which all of the key guys are healthy at the same time for an extended period of time? It’s 63 games into the season, and the team’s preferred starting lineup of Kemba, Gordon, Jaylen, Jayson and Theis have only played together in 17 games for a combined 188 minutes — the most minutes played together by any 5-man lineup for Boston.
For perspective, Milwaukee’s preferred starting lineup has played together for a combined 408 minutes. Miami’s starters have played together for 488 minutes. Toronto’s preferred starters have played 280 minutes together, and even though they themselves have dealt with injuries, they still have three 5-man lineups that have played more minutes together than Boston’s starters have. Even Philadelphia’s starting lineup that included Al Horford played 244 minutes together before Horford was moved to the bench 1 month ago. Overall, Boston’s starters rank tied for 36th in minutes played by 5-man lineups league wide.
Moving forward the question becomes, how can Boston balance giving guys the rest that they need while also chasing a 2 seed that is quickly slipping away and keeping teams like Miami off of their heels for the 3 seed? Is it possible for this team to get healthy enough to finish out the season strong yet also stay healthy enough to not be burnt out come playoff time?
Those questions will be answered over the next few weeks, and could ultimately determine this team’s fate. Healthy or not, however, this team needs to wake up, realize how this recent stretch has impacted their playoff seeding situation, and get to work on fixing the damage that has been done. That starts with going on the road to Indiana and Milwaukee and gutting out two wins at all costs.
Photo: (Brad Horrigan/The Hartford Courant)