Does a Lackluster Season Spell Disaster for the Celtics Playoff Hopes?

It’s that time of the year in Boston again, as the Celtics playoff run is still in peril. Boston is finishing up their season, and (hopefully) gearing up for another playoff run under the tenure of head coach Brad Stevens. In his eight seasons with the Cs, Stevens has led them to the playoffs from 2014-2020, and a playoff run this year would make it seven years in a row.

While this is all well and good, this season has not been one to write home about. As of writing, the Celtics sit at 35-33, good(or bad) enough for seventh in the conference. If this position were to hold, it would be tied for the worst seeding the Celtics have had in the playoffs since the 2014-2015 season, where the seventh-seeded Cs were quickly dispatched by Lebron’s Cavaliers in a four-game sweep.

Even if the Celtics were to win out the rest of the season and finish with a 39-33 record, that would mark the worst winning percentage for a playoff Celtics team under Stevens since 2014-2015, where the Celtics made the playoffs with a losing record. In pivotal games this season, the Celtics have had tremendous difficulty in asserting themselves as true championship contenders, and have failed to show a winning mentality one would expect of a team who have made the conference finals three of the past five seasons.

The worrying way the Celtics have performed only gives credence to the possibility of a playoff collapse early on, and a quick exit would leave the team scrambling to find answers as to why they couldn’t perform to their potential this season.

“Certainly anybody on the Celtics side, we’re all responsible for that. But first and foremost, I think that would fall on me. And so we have to do a better job. We have not been good on several occasions this year starting games.”- Head Coach Brad Stevens following a loss to Miami on Sunday.

Before even the idea of a playoff series crosses the mind, the Celtics should be concerned about possibly having to play for their chance to be in the playoffs. Due to the quirks of this year’s playoff format, the Celtics may have to play in a possible two games to ensure a place in the postseason. With their current position in the standings, they would have to play in a game to determine the seventh seed. Were they to lose that, they would play the winner of a game between the ninth and tenth seeds to determine the eighth seed in the playoffs.

No way the Celtics, with the likes of Jaylen Brown and Jayson Tatum, could lose two games to these teams, right? Well, against the teams currently seeded eighth through tenth, the Celtics are a paltry 5-4. This should have fans worried. The Celtics could easily suffer two losses in a row to these kinds of teams, especially considering their recent tendency to get themselves into large deficits that require herculean efforts in the second half to overcome.

Maybe it’s an issue of playing down to teams that aren’t perceived as equal to them, but it is certainly an issue that needs addressing. Brad Stevens addressed the issues of falling behind following the defeat against Miami, saying “Certainly anybody on the Celtics side, we’re all responsible for that. But first and foremost, I think that would fall on me. And so we have to do a better job. We have not been good on several occasions this year starting games.” Stevens recognizes falling behind early as a critical issue of this team, one that should have been addressed much earlier on.

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With the playoffs looming…

It doesn’t seem like it will be one that’s fixed in time for the first round.

It’s always possible the Celtics are able to quickly improve, finish out the season with a few more wins, and improve their standing enough to get them from playing the play-in games, or at the very least getting a boost that’ll motivate them in those games. Where do they go from there? They’re going to have to come face-to-face with the best of the league, and by the second round having to face one of the top three seeds in the conference. This includes the 76ers, the Nets, and the Bucks.

Past playoff performance would dictate that the Celtics would have the ability to keep up with these teams and could take a series from any of the three. The regular-season matchups this year tell an opposite story, with the Celtics a combined 1-8 against the top of the Eastern Conference. With an awful record against the best teams, and only a slightly above .500 record against the worst teams in playoff contention, how can it be expected for the Celtics to advance further than the first round, let alone to the Finals?

This hasn’t been a normal NBA season, and this has by no means been a normal Celtics season. They’ve underperformed against struggling teams and haven’t been on par with the top teams in the league, something that most pundits would not have expected going into this season. Expectations should be low for a long playoff run this season. In key games this season, the stars of this team have been inconsistent, sometimes putting on all-star caliber performances, and other times being completely silenced by the opposing defense.

In cases of the latter, the bench hasn’t shown the ability to pick up the slack enough to keep the team in the game. The mentality to win hasn’t been there with this team, and though there should be hope that it appears during the playoffs, my expectations are tempered by my belief the Celtics are going to see a first-round exit this season. The potential teams they would face in the first round are simply too good to be able to have an off-night in a series against.

With a first-round exit, or worse, losing two straight play-in games, the Celtics would be in turmoil and would likely spend much of the off-season looking for answers for their poor performance this season. With both Tatum and Brown the centerpieces of this team, a major restructuring of the players around them isn’t out of the question, including a total overhaul of the bench.

Perhaps more significantly, the coaching ability of Brad Stevens will be questioned, and whether he should continue in his role as Celtics head coach. Despite the continued playoff appearances, they have not been able to get out of the Eastern Conference Finals. Perhaps Stevens isn’t the one to get them to the finals? Only time will tell, but the next few weeks for the Celtics, and their performance, could have significant ramifications for years to come.