We are in a less than ideal portion of the Boston Celtics timeline where a recent winning surge has been silenced by erratic play down the stretch of a disappointing 2020-21 season. Following one of the most incredible comebacks in franchise history this past Friday, the Cs were robbed of a third straight win last night against the Portland Trailblazers by an errant Tristan Thompson offensive interference call that would have put the Cs up 108-107 with 7:27 left on the clock.
Boston was never able to recover as CJ McCollum buried a 26-foot 3-pointer on the ensuing Blazers possession and the game was never within six points for the remainder of the contest. 129-119 was the final, and the momentum was clearly swung so far in Portland’s favor with the aforementioned 5-point swing that the Cs had waived the white flag.
What’s especially damning about the loss is the tumble down the standings the Celtics will now take. Instead of making a push for the #4 seed, last night’s soul-crusher and last Tuesday’s unfathomable fall to the Oklahoma City Thunder leave the Cs stuck in the 7th seed and forced to beat Terry Rozier, Gordon Hayward, and the Hornets before qualifying for a matchup with the #2 seed. A loss would mean having to beat Indiana or Chicago to even make the postseason.
That could be a death sentence for the Cs if the current standings hold. The last thing Brad Stevens should want to see in the first round of the Eastern Conference playoffs is a Brooklyn Nets group with perhaps more to prove than any other team in the NBA.
Kevin Durant has precious few years left in his career after an Achilles tear took away a season of his prime. Kyrie Irving needs to prove that LeBron James’ presence isn’t needed for him to be holding the Larry O’Brien Championship Trophy. James Harden needs to prove his style of play is even conducive to winning one.
Then there’s a trio of veterans in DeAndre Jordan, Blake Griffin, and Jeff Green who have been close to the promise land through their days with the Los Angeles Clippers–in the case of the former two frontcourt members–and for Green, the 2018 NBA Finals was the closest he has been to a ring…not that the Cleveland Cavaliers were necessarily close.
This is not even to get into their depth. Even after losing LaMarcus Aldridge to a rushed medical retirement, the Nets have secondary shooting from the likes of Joe Harris and Landry Shamet, rebounding from the likes of Nic Claxton, and defensive toughness and spark-plug energy from the likes of Bruce Brown and even in-season addition Alize Johnson.
Things are clicking for Brooklyn and the proof is in the pudding. The Nets have been able to survive near constant absences from their top three stars, yet have been able to maintain an Eastern Conference-best record anyway.
Oftentimes during the 2020-21 season, excuses for the Boston Celtics have been flying around pertaining to the lack of games played by their full core. And there’s validity to it, as no team has been hit with as many COVID-19-related absences.
That said, the show goes on. Finding ways to win in the NBA is what coaches get paid the big bucks to do. Allowing Stevens off the hook in his eighth season for not being able to consistently win in the Eastern Conference without a full lineup every night is a fine exercise if it helps you sleep at night, but in a way, it downplays his capabilities as a head coach.
If a first-year head coach in Steve Nash can get the return he has gotten from his similarly-depleted bunch (no team in playoff contention has had more starting lineups this season) then perhaps the bar should be raised for what is expected out of a coach who has made three trips to the Eastern Conference championship in the last four years.
Stevens inherited a team that was in no position to win, and changed the course of the Boston Celtics within a few years. He led several underdog teams to the ECF–most notably the 2017 and 2018 Cs–and has earned plenty of goodwill in the process.
But the fact that the Brooklyn Nets are a nightmare first-round matchup scenario for Boston shows just how shaky the ground is in Beantown.
Brooklyn swept the head-to-head series this season, and their most recent matchup on April 23rd was the closest contest of the three matchups. Even so, the Nets have won each matchup by an average of 15 points.
Oh, and both Durant and Harden were missing during that five-point loss, even if Brown and Walker weren’t in uniform themselves.
The Boston Celtics just had a nightmare scenario play out in real-time with Jaylen Brown and Jayson Tatum colliding in the closing moment’s of last night’s loss to Portland. A longer-lasting nightmare for the franchise could unfold if the Cs draw Brooklyn in the first round of the postseason and prove that a championship isn’t close to possible with the current makeup of the team.
That nightmare can only happen in the first place if Boston can avoid partaking in the postseason play-in tournament, which can lead to an even more catastrophic situation if the Cs don’t survive it.