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Is it fair to be a little concerned about the Celtics?

The Celtics aren’t looking like themselves. Is it time to panic, or is it just part of the journey?

NBA: Boston Celtics at Cleveland Cavaliers
Celtics head coach Joe Mazzulla reacts in the first half in a game against the Cavaliers on Monday.
Ken Blaze-USA TODAY Sports

These are a few of the many sobering facts:

  1. The Celtics have lost three straight games to fellow Eastern Conference playoff teams.
  2. They blew a 14-plus-point lead in all three of those games.
  3. They’re now two and a half games behind the Bucks and only a game and a half up on the 76ers.
  4. They’ve given up 118.7 points per game in their last seven.
  5. They’re 11-10 against Eastern Conference teams with winning records, including 0-7 in overtime.

Sorry, I know. Not fun. Reading that probably felt like a chore. Don’t worry, we’re getting to the good stuff (well, the less bad stuff, at least).

These are a few of the many encouraging facts:

  1. They haven’t been whole, due to injuries, and have barely played at full strength this season.
  2. They put themselves in position to win each of those three games.
  3. Eight of their next 10 games are against teams currently below .500.
  4. When they lost three straight in December, they responded to win four straight and 13 of 15. When they lost three straight in January, they responded to win 9 of 11.
  5. They have Jayson Tatum and Jaylen Brown.

So, given all of these variables, and all the other ones that keep you up at night, is it fair to be a little concerned about the Celtics?

Well, let’s start with this: I don’t think it’s fair to be majorly concerned about the Celtics. They’re arguably the most talented, deepest and most well put-together team in the NBA. That hasn’t changed, and it won’t change.

Teams go through slumps, and this slump isn’t really a traditional slump in a sense. It’s more about inconsistency. They’ve played to their potential in stretches; it just hasn’t been enough good basketball at the right moments.

Also, give the Nets, Knicks, and Cavaliers credit. They all balled out in key spots and hit tough shots. Plus, the Celtics could have easily won Monday night, even if Grant Williams made one less free throw than he said he would. Of course many other things go into deciding a game, but it was there for the taking.

So, it’s not time to hit the panic button or start watching the Bruins exclusively. This Celtics team has a knack for recovering and avoiding extended bad stretches. I fully expect Boston to win at least three of its next five games (probably four or five) against the Trail Blazers, Hawks, Rockets, Timberwolves and Trail Blazers again.

It would be unwise to count the Celtics out, given their track record, overall skill and collective hunger level.

Now, having said that...I do think it’s fair to be a little concerned. First and foremost, I think they’ve lost a bit of the swagger they’ve had the bulk of the year.

The Nets, Knicks, and Cavaliers looked like teams that genuinely expected to win. The Cavaliers are straight-up contenders, the Knicks are on the rise and the Nets can’t be taken lightly.

Watching those games, it seemed like the Celtics and their opponent were evenly matched teams trading punches. It didn’t seem like the Celtics were sizing them up, waiting to pounce at the right moment and put the game out of reach.

When I analyze a game, I like to frame it through the lens of which team did I find myself watching. I found myself watching Mikal Bridges and the Nets, Immanuel Quickley and the Knicks and Donovan Mitchell and the Cavaliers more than I was watching the Celtics. Quickley was having the time of his life, and it was quite entertaining.

The Celtics were playing, too – and playing well at times – but they weren’t ever in total command. A run seemed entirely plausible in each matchup, and that could be a problem in the playoffs because it’s abundantly clear these teams aren’t intimidated in the slightest.

In related news, it appears the Bucks are (very) good at basketball. The Suns, Nuggets, 76ers, Grizzlies and Warriors, among others, are all legitimate contenders. Earlier in the year, it felt like it was the Celtics versus the field. Now it feels like it’s everyone clumped into one group. I thiiiiiink I’d still take the Celtics, but the field is a lot more enticing.

Another factor, of course, is health. It would be unwise to assume that the Celtics will be at full strength the entire playoffs. Of course that’s the goal, but it’s far from a guarantee. For instance, the Celtics could win the championship without Robert Williams, but their chances would inevitably take a significant hit.

Finally, the Celtics depend a great deal on the 3. I love 3-pointers more than anyone I know, and even I think the Celtics sometimes take too many. It’s tricky, because that’s their biggest strength, but when the shots aren’t falling, they can be a bit one-dimensional.

But all of this is part of the journey, right? You didn’t expect this team to win 65-plus games and coast to a championship, did you? Well, maybe you did, but I’ve got news for you: that ain’t happening.

However, a championship is still absolutely, without question, within reach. I couldn’t see myself picking any team over the Celtics in a seven-game series. Each one may be a grind, but I still see them getting there in the end.

So, yes, it’s fair to be a little concerned....but only a little.

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