The Celtics are tied for first in the league with twelve losses by five or fewer points. The Indiana Pacers also have 12 and the San Antonio Spurs trail behind with 10. Of course, the big difference is that only the Celtics are technically still in the hunt for the postseason. Tip the scales a bit and a handful of wins wouldn't change the outlook of the Pacers; they'd still be a team with too many players playing the same position for a head coach that wants to play a completely different way. More wins might squarely put San Antonio into the play-in tournament conversation, but they're still a rebuilding team in the twilight of Gregg Popovich's career.
For the Celtics, however, a couple of balls bounce in Boston's favor and the conversation changes completely. At a game under .500, they sit at 10th in the conference, half a game ahead of the New York Knicks and four and a half back of the #5 seed Cleveland Cavaliers.
Twelve losses. Individually, they’re all eye sores, each a gut punch to the fan base. Stacked up, it’s even worse. That’s an eighth of the season determined by a bucket or two. That’s the razor’s edge between being publicly recognized as a title contender or “better luck next year” with the trade deadline fast approaching.
So, let’s play a little What If. Whether you think it’s just bad luck that shots aren’t falling or these are growing pains of two twentysomething stars figuring it out, what if a handful of these losses went Boston’s way?
The ugly losses
Eliminating bad losses from your record is like cutting out sugar from your diet. It’s impossible because all great things are sugar and everybody deserves a cheat day, and the Celtics certainly have had a few donuts this year. There’s the no-show in Minnesota against a G-League Timberwolves team, the thumping in LA against the Clippers, the absolutely anemic shooting performance in D.C. when they hit just two of the 27 three-point attempts against the Wizards, and last Friday’s crumpling defeat to the Trail Blazers after the team did not hit a single field goal over the final seven minutes. Games like that are going to happen to every team every year. You can try and swear them off, but there are nights when you come out flat and you just don’t have it.
The buzzer beaters
For the most avid of fans, these are heartbreaking events. You probably haven’t forgotten where you were when Luka Doncic’s or R.J. Hampton’s prayers were answered by the basketball gods or when Jaylen Brown missed a bunny against the Spurs. Even worse, Boston hasn't had the chance to be on the other side of this coin. They’ve tied games on final shots of regulation or won games at the free throw line, but the Garden hasn’t erupted after a clutch Tatum sidestep or a Brown three from above the break.
The Opening Night double-overtime loss at MSG. The 19-point collapse in Cleveland. Hanging around with the Warriors. The dog fight with Joel Embiid. The Christmas Day collapse in Milwaukee. These are tough to swallow, and moral victories are losses just the same, but like the buzzer beaters, if half these games go Boston’s way, we're talking about a very different outlook, particularly because they came against playoff teams.
In the end, all the ifs, ands, or buts amount to nothing. I’m hardly saying that we can just expunge these from the record books. They’re written in ink, but in a year or so, they’ll hopefully be the fodder of sports almanacs and blips in the stellar careers of Jayson Tatum and Jaylen Brown. But in the present, I think it’s important to have that bigger picture perspective in mind.
Despite the disappointing record, team-wide trends shows that the Celtics are getting better. Nearly every month, Boston’s offense has improved from an offensive rating of 103.5 in October to 107.2 in November to 110.9 since December 1st. Defensively, they’re a top-5 team on that side of the ball (107.3 DefRtg). It just hasn't manifested itself in the win column.
But of course, my heart ponders, “let’s say half of these twelve games were wins.” My head replies, “I’ll give you four.” So, say it’s four. The Celtics would be 27-20. Boy, that feels so much different, right?
They’d be right in the mix to host a first round series in the East and there would be a sea change in attitude with how to approach the trade deadline. Most pundits and CelticsBlog Slack would see the team as potential buyers rather than putting up yard sale signs on Causeway Street. The nagging narrative about breaking up the Jays would really be dead. Doubting rookie head coach Ime Udoka would be complaining for the sake of complaining and Brad Stevens’ calm even keel demeanor would be calming rather frustrating.
But alas, here we are.
The bright side to Boston’s 9-17 record in clutch games is, well, they’re competitive in a lot of their games. We’ve seen them pull out a few rabbits out of their hat in January at TD Garden (against the Bulls, Pacers, and Magic). On the other hand, they’re competitive...right until the end.
Their clutch stats are atrocious. They’re 22nd in the league with a -8.4 net rating in games determined by five points or less with five minutes to go. The offense completely craters when it matters most. For a team that has seemingly figured it out so many times this season, it’s stark just how far they really have to get to to become a truly good-to-great team.
And yet — here comes the pendulum swing again — they seem so close, too. Maybe it’s the long run in the bubble plus a year from hell last season plus the coaching change plus the personnel turnover. Maybe this season is just a crazy anomaly; as CelticsBlog’s Wes Howard suggests, even an average shooting season from Jayson Tatum would have dramatically change the complexion of 2021-2022. Maybe patience and a little bit of faith will be rewarded in the end. Maybe maybe maybe.