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Have the Celtics lost their back-to-back mojo?

The Celtics haven’t won a single game on the second night of a back-to-back all year, a feat they used to accomplish regularly. This weekend, they’ll face Cleveland on Friday and Minnesota on the road the following night.

Boston Celtics v Denver Nuggets Photo by Matthew Stockman/Getty Images

Winning a professional basketball game isn’t easy, even less so when playing on the second night of a back-to-back. Heavy legs and weary minds have a tendency to derail even the most talented of units. Shots land short. Drives to the hoop come up inches short, defensive rotations a second too slow. It takes an immense amount of focus and self-motivation to overcome the fatigue experienced from playing against the best athletes in the world just 24 hours prior, frequently after a night of sleep disrupted by travel.

We’re not here to make excuses. NBA players are paid millions of dollars to endure the rigors of playing back-to-backs, but the fact remains that doing so is more challenging than not.

In recent years the Boston Celtics seemed to have cracked the code when playing on consecutive nights. Boston’s record on the second night of back-to-backs in the three seasons prior to the current campaign stands at 29-18, good for a .617 winning percentage, a mark equivalent to that of a 50-win team. During the 2015-16 season the Celtics even managed to post a better winning percentage on the second night of back-to-backs than their overall mark for the year.

Boston’s apparent level of effectiveness under such typically adverse conditions is skewed a bit by a small sample size, but the fact that it’s persisted across three separate teams in three separate seasons is enough to declare it interesting at the very least. The most common line of thinking as to why the Celtics have found such success is to attribute the team’s focus and determination to head coach Brad Stevens.

Boston’s leading man is a defense-first disciple, a process-oriented culture setter extraordinaire, and a very good in-game tactician. His skill set lends itself to helping teams build up their collective resiliency, grind out defensive battles, and leverage small strategic advantages. All of which bodes well for winning on the second night of back-to-backs. And yet, in the present, whatever magic Brad Stevens and his staff seemed to brew up on appears to have disappeared. The Celtics are 0-4 in such contests to start the year.

Context is valuable here. Boston has lost to the Toronto Raptors, Utah Jazz (twice), and Dallas Mavericks on the second night of a back-to-back. Outside of Toronto that doesn’t represent the absolute creme de la creme of the league, but none of the trio qualifies as an absolute pushover. The collective winning percentage of those three teams rates out at .542 (for those paying close attention to the math, we double counted Utah to match up to averages from previous years). That mark likely undersells the talent level of the Jazz, and even still, it outpaces the average winning percentage of teams that Boston beat in its three years of back-to-back competence - .490 - by a considerable margin.

The historical data would suggest that it’s not crazy for Boston to have lost more games than it has won, given the quality of their opponents, but to post a total doughnut is surprising. So what gives?

There are an infinite number of possible reasons why the Celtics’ effectiveness on the second night of back-to-backs has dried up, but in this situation the simplest solution is likely the most apt (shouts to you Occam’s Razor heads): Boston has lost its mojo playing in back-to-backs because it’s lost its mojo writ large.

The Celtics have played sloppy, uninspired basketball all year long. Barfing up mid-range bricks, misfiring on wide-open threes, showing an incredible aversion to attacking the hoop, struggling to defend the league’s most common actions, opting not to force the ball out of the hands of unconsciously hot scorers, all these things are detrimental to winning and have consistently plagued Boston throughout the year.

They become increasingly more painful when players lack the energy - both physical and mental - to rectify their mistakes. This all may sound a bit gloomy, but there’s a “glass half full” perspective to be found here. The Celtics are a mess, but they’ve got plenty of time to figure things out. If and when they get back to playing smart, aggressive basketball, they’ll reconnect with their uncanny ability to win on the second night of back-to-backs. Boston and its fans just need to be patient.

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