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The many potential timelines of the Boston Celtics

Sitting at 30-18 after their fifth consecutive win, the Celtics’ upcoming schedule could be a lesson in Remedial Chaos Theory.

NBA: Cleveland Cavaliers at Boston Celtics Greg M. Cooper-USA TODAY Sports

The season is more than halfway over, the All-Star Break is just a few weeks away, and the games are growing ever more important for the Boston Celtics. On the heels of their dramatic win over the first-place Toronto Raptors, the Celtics have rattled off five consecutive wins and sit just 2.5 games behind the Philadelphia 76ers for the Eastern Conference’s fourth seed. With the sixth-hardest schedule in the league ahead of them (per, it’s time to examine what the Celtics need to do to in their remaining 34 games to advance their standing in the conference before the playoffs.

Our guide for this exercise is a little unusual: NBC’s Community. Specifically, the third episode of the third season — and one of the most famous episodes of the series — “Remedial Chaos Theory.” In it, our main characters gather for a housewarming party, and when their pizza delivery arrives, Jeff (Joel McHale) rolls a six-sided die to determine who has to go pick it up at the door. This, as Abed (Danny Pudi) points out, creates six separate potential timelines for the group depending on how the die lands. The rest of the episode illustrates what happens in each of those timelines.

While the Celtics don’t have quite as specific a trigger as a six-sided die, they still have a wide array of possible timelines ahead of them. We’re going to make a thought exercise out of this and take a look at what some of those outcomes might be. Let’s begin by highlighting some important games facing the Celtics through their remaining 34 games. What are we going to be circling on the calendar?

Boston Celtics vs. Golden State Warriors, 1/16

The first, and most obvious, is the Celtics’ very next game this Saturday: at home against the reigning champs. As the team many picked as most likely to challenge the Warriors in the NBA Finals — and as a team becoming notorious for playing up or down to the level of their opponent — we’ll want to see the Celtics at least keep this one competitive.

Boston Celtics at Philadelphia 76ers, 2/12

Boston Celtics at Philadelphia 76ers, 3/20

The Celtics are 2-0 against the 76ers so far this season, but both of those games took place at TD Garden. Now, they’ll travel to Philadelphia twice, needing to win at least one to secure a tiebreaker over their rivals — though the sweep would be much preferred.

Boston Celtics at Milwaukee Bucks, 2/21

Boston and Milwaukee play only three games against each other this season, and they’ve split the first two. The Celtics’ odds at the two seed are a little long, but if they’re going to pull it off, this game is a must-win.

Boston Celtics at Toronto Raptors, 2/26

Like with Philadelphia, the Celtics have already scored two wins over the Raptors at home. Unlike with Philadelphia, though, they’ve already dropped one of their two games in Toronto. If the Celtics want to achieve their slim odds of stealing the Eastern Conference’s top seed, this is a must-win game, as they’re unlikely to secure a tiebreaker otherwise.

Boston Celtics vs. Houston Rockets, 3/3

Functionally, this game might not matter a whole lot beyond the Celtics needing every win they can get. Still, a rematch at home against the Rockets after getting buried by James Harden in Houston the first time around feels like the kind of game you want to win.

Boston Celtics vs. Indiana Pacers, 3/29

Boston Celtics at Indiana Pacers, 4/5

Unfortunately, due to Victor Oladipo’s heartbreaking injury Wednesday night, these games have to come with an asterisk now. The Celtics and the Pacers are more or less neck-and-neck right now, with Indiana clinging to just a 2.5 game lead in the fourth seed. Before Oladipo went down, these two games looked like potentially landscape-shifting affairs in the season’s final week. Now, it remains to be seen how Indiana responds moving forward before we can judge just how important they are.

Boston Celtics vs. Miami Heat, 4/1

Boston Celtics at Miami Heat, 4/3

The Miami Heat are not necessarily an Eastern Conference contender, as they’ve hovered around .500 for the entire season, but these two NBA TV match-ups in the final week of the season can’t be overlooked. Every conference win is going to matter as the Celtics jockey for playoff seeding, and it’s simply very difficult to beat the same team twice in consecutive games, especially when that team is as well-coached as the Heat are.

NBA: Miami Heat at Boston Celtics David Butler II-USA TODAY Sports

Now, with those games in mind, let’s get weird with some timelines.

The Enormous Success: 28-6 (82%, 67-win pace)

The Celtics simply aren’t going to finish the season 34-0 (unfortunately), but as far as realistic outcomes go, looking like the 67-win juggernaut many thought they could be before the season feels like the best possible one. This is the timeline where the dramatic victory over the Raptors that triggered this recent winning streak turns out to be a complete turning point, and also the timeline that might be necessary if the Celtics want to steal one of the top two seeds in the Eastern Conference. A 58-24 final record might not quite get them there, but it could very well get them close.

Some factors at play in this one:

  • The Celtics beat all the bad teams they’re supposed to. Tankathon has their worst remaining opponents listed as Cleveland, New York, Chicago, Atlanta and Orlando. We want them beating every single one.
  • They win big in the Eastern Conference. They secure a 3-1 series wins over the Raptors and Pacers, sweep the 76ers and top the Bucks 2-1. Their early season success at home against these teams puts them in great position here, and this is the scenario where it really pays off. They also tack on a season sweep of the Wizards, just for funsies.
  • The series with Golden State is a 1-1 split, and they get their revenge against James Harden and the Rockets. I don’t think there’s a realistic outcome where the Celtics sweep the reigning champs, but in this instance, both games are competitive and the Celtics look very dangerous. Some payback against The Beard just sweetens the pot.
  • Kyrie Irving finishes as a top-three MVP candidate in this instance. Meanwhile, Gordon Hayward finally finds some consistency, and closes out the year looking something like Old G. The bench continues to solidify, with the improved play of Jaylen Brown proving to be sustainable and Terry Rozier bringing the same energy to his bench role that he does in his occasional opportunities to start. Al Horford gets healthy and stays healthy. Good news abounds!
NBA: Toronto Raptors at Boston Celtics David Butler II-USA TODAY Sports

The Encouraging Finish: 24-10 (70%, 57-win pace)

This feels like the most likely outcome: similar to the first, but a little more tame. This is the “Boston climbs up to third in the East, but remains a few steps behind Toronto and Milwaukee at the top end” timeline. A final record of 54-28 might not be what we hoped for prior to the season, but considering the slow start, it’s a vast improvement.

The specifics:

  • The Celtics generally win all the games they should. Maybe they drop one or two against some mid-tier teams like Charlotte or Detroit, but they find a much more notable degree of consistency.
  • The Eastern Conference match-ups play out generally well. They split the remaining games against the 76ers to win the season series 3-1, and sweep the remaining Indiana match-ups to secure that series as well. The Raptors get the best of them in Toronto, however, likely costing them that tiebreaker, and the Bucks take the final game to win that series, 2-1.
  • The Celtics still split the season series against both Golden State and Houston, continuing their effective play against top-end competition. Maybe they absorb a double-digit loss in one of those Warriors games, considering how easily Golden State can run up the score on anyone.
  • There’s a little more awkwardness to the individual performances in this timeline. Irving continues to play as well as ever, but Hayward doesn’t quite find a level of consistency this season. Brown continues his resurgence, but Rozier continues to struggle with his reduced workload on nights where Irving plays. Overall, though, the Celtics are still trending upwards here.

The “More of the Same:” 21-13 (62%, 51-win pace)

We already know this timeline, because it’s the one we’ve currently existed in through the first 48 games. The Celtics have struggled to inspire a whole lot of confidence, in part because they’ve struggled to find any semblance of consistency. This present winning streak feels like a turning point for the season, as overused as that phrase may be, but this is the timeline where it proves to be fool’s gold. Maybe the Celtics are exactly who they’ve been, and earn that 51-31 record they’ve been on pace for up to now.

  • This is when the Celtics start to drop games against teams they should be beating, like they have at various times this season. Teams like Charlotte, Brooklyn or Detroit start to feel a little bit more worrisome, and teams like Atlanta and Orlando continue to put up more of a fight than they should.
  • The Eastern Conference doesn’t quite play out how we want here. The Celtics have been vastly better at home (19-5) than on the road (11-13), and it shows, as they lose both games in Philadelphia, lose in Toronto and Milwaukee, and split the final two games in Indiana. They also lose the season finale in Washington in very much of a “looking ahead to the playoffs” fashion.
  • The Celtics still steal a game from Golden State here, because they simply must taunt us with their upside, but they lose a blowout in Oakland and narrowly drop the rematch in Houston.
  • Injuries! The injury report has been a formidable opponent for this team thus far, and in this timeline, that doesn’t improve. Nagging issues bring prominent rotation players in and out of the lineup all season long, and the team is still not able to build consistency as a result. Perhaps — knock on wood — Irving’s history of injury problems starts to catch up to him even more, as well.

The Darkest Timeline: 18-16 (55%, 45-win pace)

Anything that results in the Celtics finishing below 50 wins has to be considered a resounding failure, and the 48 wins they’d finish with here certainly qualify. This is the timeline that creates evil clones.

  • Those teams we’ve assumed the Celtics should be winning? Maybe they are one of those teams. A 45-win pace puts them in the neighborhood of the Brooklyn Nets, which isn’t what you want to see.
  • The Eastern Conference slate is a disaster. Their only win against the current top four seeds comes at home against Indiana sans-Oladipo.
  • The Celtics don’t look like they belong in either match-up against the Warriors, and Harden surpasses Kobe by hanging 82 points on the Celtics in TD Garden. Twitter never, ever lets it go.
  • The Hospital Celtics return in full force, but don’t pull off the miraculous shorthanded wins they became known for last season. For this team to finish below 50 wins, you have to assume Irving manages less than 60 games played — he’s simply too good for it to happen otherwise.
NBA: Cleveland Cavaliers at Boston Celtics Greg M. Cooper-USA TODAY Sports

The fan in me obviously wants to see the Celtics follow that first timeline, the Enormous Success. That said, a sudden switch to playing at a 67-win pace seems like a little too much to ask. Rationally, the Encouraging Finish feels like a more likely outcome, and one that would be hard to be disappointed with, all things considered. Any strong opinions on what track the Celtics will take to finish this season, or suggestions for other possible timelines? Let us know down below in the comments.

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