The string of disappointing Celtics losses coupled with troublesome injuries over the past 10 days has been difficult to process for the team, especially because each loss was marked by a significant blown lead. Boston dropped its fourth straight game at home on Sunday to the Thunder and coughed up an 18-point lead in doing so.
Coach Brad Stevens downplayed the slump, which came on the heels of a successful West Coast trip that had some hailing the Celtics as potential Finals contenders.
“I’ve lived this before,” Stevens said. “You know, with most of our good teams go through stretches like this and usually two or three a year. This is our second one. Hopefully we can nip that in the bud and not have a third one. But the road doesn’t get any easier. These are tough games coming up and that’s good because you got to do tough things to get yourself out of a rut.”
The problem for the Celtics is that the timing of this rut has left the team in serious jeopardy heading into the final weeks of the season, with playoff seeding on the line. It was only 11 days ago that the Celtics were a half-game behind the Raptors for the No. 2 seed in the East and appeared destined to slide ahead of Toronto to claim the spot.
But the Celtics fell in overtime to Houston, then choked away a late lead to the Nets. There was a win in Cleveland, but two more disappointing losses at home, first against Utah and finally to OKC. That’s dropped Boston to 42-21.
Raptors Firm Up Hold on No. 2 Seed
This early March swoon has made it nearly impossible for the Celtics to move up to the No. 2 seed in the East without a losing streak from the defending champs. That half-game lead the Raptors had has ballooned to 4.5 games as Toronto has gone on a four-game winning streak, putting together its own impressive Western Conference swing. The Raptors have three days off before they play again, on Saturday.
Boston plays Toronto one more time before the season’s end, on March 20 in Toronto. That may be a make-or-break game for the Celtics if they want to vault back into line for the second seed in the conference. The Celtics have beaten the Raptors twice in their three meetings and would earn the tiebreaker if they can win in Toronto in 10 days.
Whichever team earns the No. 2 seed will quickly become the favorite to reach the Eastern Conference finals. The second seed with play No. 7 in the first round of the playoffs, slated to be either Orlando or Brooklyn. Both are below .500 and would be longshots to reach the second round. The No. 3 seed would get either Philadelphia, Indiana or Miami.
After that, the No. 2 seed would have homecourt advantage in the East semifinals.
Celtics Trying to Keep Homecourt Advantage
As important as the chase for No. 2, the Celtics must be concerned about falling out of the Top 3 altogether. Boston is just 1.5 games ahead of the Heat for the No. 4 seed. Falling out of the 2-3 range would make a trip through the East playoffs especially harrowing. The Heat have won four out of their last five games and have three home games against sub-.500 teams (Charlotte, New York, Chicago) on the horizon.
The Celtics won their first two matchups against Miami, but the teams will play twice more.
Boston also must be concerned with the Pacers and Sixers behind them — and homecourt advantage in the first round. The Celtics are only 3.5 games ahead of Indiana and will play the Pacers on the road tonight. Philadelphia trails the Celtics by 4.5 games but beat Boston three times in four games this season, giving the Sixers the tiebreaker advantage.
Maybe the Celtics will turn things around here in March. But the way they’ve started off the month has put them in serious danger of slipping in the East playoff standings.