This time last year, I wrote an article about the mercurial 2018-19 Celtics in which I used an episode of the erstwhile NBC sitcom Community to discuss the wide range of possible outcomes that awaited the team across their final 34 games. It was a useful framing device for those Celtics, who, volatile as they were, seemed equally likely to either come together and contend for a title or completely flame out and collapse. Now, as the current iteration of the team enters a similar stretch, it’s worth revisiting the idea, both to evaluate what lies ahead for these Celtics and contrast them to last year’s team.
As a refresher, the relevant episode was one of the most famous of the show’s run: the fourth episode of the third season, “Remedial Chaos Theory.” It’s the episode with that one GIF you’ve probably seen a thousand times before. 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.
I settled on four options for those 34 games last season: The Enormous Success (28-6, 67-win pace), The Encouraging Finish (24-10, 57-win pace), The More of the Same (21-13, 51-win pace) and, of course, The Darkest Timeline (18-16, 45-win pace). Ultimately, they closed out the season perilously close to the latter option. They fumbled their way to a 19-15 record the rest of the way, before being unceremoniously throttled by the Milwaukee Bucks in the second round of the playoffs.
This year’s team has a different look. Their ceiling seems to be quite a bit higher, thanks to star turns by Jayson Tatum and Jaylen Brown alongside the steadying presence of Kemba Walker. And considering that they have yet to lose more than three consecutive games this season, their floor should be higher as well. We have a fairly strong idea of what this team is, so there should be less chaos in their potential outcomes.
Still, there’s some merit to visualizing what the rest of the season might look like. Let’s take a look at what the Celtics’ season could become over their final 28 games. If you need a refresher on the schedule ahead, take a look at Wednesday’s article discussing the key dates for the team in the months to come.
Giant Slayers: 23-5 (85%, 70-win pace)
Let’s dream big for a moment. In this timeline, the Celtics overtake the Milwaukee Bucks for the top seed in the Eastern Conference.
This is our least likely timeline, simply because it requires the most help. Even playing nearly flawless basketball, the Celtics finish with 61 wins here. The Bucks already have 46. They can go just 16-12 and still top this — a colossal disaster, by their lofty standards. The hypothetical 85% win percentage I have the Celtics posting here is Milwaukee’s actual win percentage for the entire season.
And yet, play with me in this space, just a little bit. The Celtics sit eight games behind the Bucks with two head-to-head match ups still to come. They’re also as healthy as they’ve been since the very beginning of the season, when they rattled off a 10-game winning streak that included a comeback win over these same Bucks. If they can avoid further injury woes the rest of the way, they may well have the talent to pull off a run like this.
A collapse of some form by the Bucks would still be necessary, likely an extended absence on the part of MVP candidate Giannis Antetokounmpo. But at least they will have put themselves in position to have some percentage of a chance.
Everything’s Coming Up Milhouse: 21-7 (75%, 61-win pace)
Returning to Earth a little bit, we have the upper end of our more realistic possibilities. This timeline sees the Celtics vault the Raptors for the second seed in the Eastern Conference, securing them home court advantage through the first two rounds of the playoffs and a likely match up in Round 1 with a sub-.500 team. They beat the Raptors in Toronto in March, assuring them the season tiebreaker, and they polish off Miami at home in the beginning of April to keep them at arm’s reach. It would be virtually impossible for Philadelphia or Indiana to catch the Celtics here — the Pacers would need to win out just to tie them.
This is within reach for this roster, as talented as it is. The obvious caveat is that they need to stay healthy. The Celtics have been one of the most injured teams in the entire NBA through this point in the season--Kemba Walker is sitting out today’s game in Minnesota with a sore knee--and while it’s impressive that they’ve held onto the third seed in the East despite that fact, they’re going to face a more narrow margin of error in the playoff seeding race. Toronto isn’t going anywhere; they’ve stayed one step ahead of Boston nearly the whole season, and they’ve overcome injury issues of their own. One ill-timed injury could make all the difference for either team.
In this timeline, fortune favors the Celtics.
Meet the New Celtics, Same as the Old Celtics: 19-9 (70%, 57-win pace)
This is quite similar to our previous timeline, but an extra couple losses and some poor injury luck hold them back from overtaking Toronto. This should be a strong enough finish to fend off teams like Philadelphia and Indiana. But suddenly, the Miami Heat start to loom. They’re only three games behind Boston with two head-to-head match ups remaining.
These Heat did improve at the trade deadline. In a vacuum, Andre Iguodala probably isn’t as good a player as Justise Winslow right now, but Winslow has struggled with injuries all season and only played in one of the Heat’s two losses to Boston. Iguodala and old friend Jae Crowder will make for useful pieces when defending the wing-heavy Celtics. Regardless of your feelings on the trade, they’re a better team in the short-term as a result. If that improvement translates into a late-season surge, you could make the case that a finish like this doesn’t necessarily guarantee Boston the third seed in the Eastern Conference.
That is a glass-half-empty viewpoint, however. This timeline has the Celtics winning games at the exact same clip as they have all year, and puts them in comfortable position to secure the three seed and face a rematch with the Pacers in the first round of the playoffs. That’s not a disappointing finish. It’s just not the elevation we’d all like to see.
The Darkest Timeline: 16-12 (57%, 46-win pace)
A bit of an extreme drop from our previous timeline, perhaps, but much like overtaking Milwaukee, this seems highly unlikely. This timeline essentially relies on the Celtics both continuing to struggle with injury problems and not being able to adapt to it as well as they did in the first half.
Boston’s absolute floor feels like the fifth seed at this point. The possible Miami jump from the previous timeline is a near certainty here, and since they’ve already lost the season series to Philadelphia, getting leapfrogged by the 76ers is a very real possibility as well. More borderline are the Indiana Pacers, who have a 1-0 series advantage as of the All-Star break with two match ups remaining, but also need to overcome a six-game deficit in the process. They would need to go 22-5 across the remainder of the season to tie Boston and drop the Celtics to sixth in this timeline. It feels unlikely.
These outcomes certainly aren’t quite as vast as last season’s. Both the upper and lower extremes seem like major improbabilities to come to pass, requiring disastrous injuries to players like Giannis Antetokounmpo or Jayson Tatum to even enter the conversation.
More likely, the Celtics will continue to play somewhere between great and elite NBA basketball. Boston is third in net rating (6.8), fifth in offensive rating (112.5), and third in defensive rating (105.7). The Milwaukee Bucks are in a league of their own, but at present, Boston ranks strongly amongst the second tier of championship contenders.
Pushing past Toronto for the second seed in the East would substantially help their chances, but finishing in the high 50’s in the win column and playing meaningful basketball into May and June is hard to complain about for one of the youngest rosters in the league. A refreshing change of pace from the chaos of the 2018-19 team, indeed.
As with last year, I want to hear your takes. Which timeline do you think is going to become reality? Let us know in the comments below.