To say the Boston Celtics have underwhelmed through roughly three quarters of this NBA season would be something of an understatement. The presumptive preseason favorites to win the Eastern Conference currently find themselves in fifth place, a full 8.5 games back of the first place Milwaukee Bucks.
Some nights Boston looks like the team many predicted it to be. When the ball is moving crisply, the Celtics’ offense is a five-headed nightmare of shooters and slashers led by a scoring savant in Kyrie Irving. When its defense is locked in, Boston sports a cadre of long, rugged athletes moving in perfect unison, with enough versatility to deal with nearly any opponent.
The games in which the Celtics have played well on both ends of the court have simply come too infrequently to inspire much confidence as compared to their peers however, and the net result has left them staring at the possibility of kicking off the playoffs on the road.
Such an outcome may not be an utter calamity, particularly if Boston can find a way to win in the postseason despite less favorable seeding, but it would certainly qualify as a failure compared to expectations for the year. It’s not one that the Celtics need accept as inevitable.
Boston isn’t going to catch up to the Bucks or Toronto Raptors and contend for the conference’s top spot. If those two teams continue to win at their current rates for the year, it literally isn’t possible for the Celtics to make up the necessary ground, even if they went undefeated for the remainder of the year, which they won’t. However, Boston may have some hope of surpassing the two teams ahead of them in the standings - the Philadelphia 76ers and Indiana Pacers.
Indiana, which recently lost its biggest star in Victor Oladipo, is the likeliest candidate to fade down the stretch, but the Pacers have won at a schockingly strong rate in the absence of their dynamic shooting guard. Boston would need to close out the year on an 18-4 run to match Indiana’s projected win total for the year should they maintain their current pace. That’s not technically an impossibility for a team as talented at the Celtics, but it represents a major improvement from their performance to date.
The 17-5 record they would need to pull even with the Sixers, should their competitive status quo persist, is as well. In that sense there may be real reason for concern in Boston. There is very little evidence to suggest that the current iteration of the Celtics is capable of making a significant late season climb in the conference hierarchy.
And yet there may still be reason for optimism.
Boston’s net rating for the year in non-garbage time minutes of plus-6.1 is two full points better than last year’s mark, and rates out as the third best in the league per Cleaning the Glass. The data suggests that the Celtics have been tremendously unlucky, winning 3.5 fewer games than their offensive and defensive efficiency metrics suggest they ought to have thus far. A three win improvement from their current record would put them in a direct tie with the Pacers for third in the conference, and on track to win the same number of games as last year’s much ballyhooed Eastern Conference Finals team.
It would also leave them well behind the current creme de la creme of the East, a point that should not be undersold. A substantial portion of the shock and frustration associated with Boston’s mediocre positioning in the standings is driven by the fact that the Bucks and Raptors are currently on pace to crack 60 wins. Fans in Milwaukee and Toronto are living the dream that those in Boston had envisioned for themselves heading into the year.
The Celtics have played both - and indeed all of the teams ahead of them in the standings - fairly well this year. It isn’t impossible to imagine Boston taking down any of its Eastern Conference foes in a seven-game series, but it’s not doing itself any favors by failing to match their regular season success. The Celtics have been bad away from the friendly confines of the TD Garden, and showed an incredible variability in home versus road performance last postseason.
Maybe some of that can be mitigated by experience, or the presence of Irving, who missed last year’s playoffs due to injury, but the preference here would obviously been for the team to simply have played to its potential throughout the year. Such has not been the case however, a fact reflected starkly in Boston’s place in the standings.
So what’s the takeaway here? It’s really been the same as it’s been all year. The Celtics are maddeningly inconsistent, but have played well enough to keep everyone intrigued. Somewhere in Boston’s collection of talent there is an elite-level team. Whether or not they show up when the games matter most remains to be seen.