Their focus, from the top down, has centered on the playoffs — on tinkering with new lineups to see what works best, on prepping postseason rookies for what lies ahead, on resting star veterans and helping them return to a comfortable rhythm.
But the playoffs are not here. Not yet.
The Celtics have regular-season games remaining, contests that will decide which opponent they’ll face in the opening round, an enormous factor that will no doubt determine their postseason life expectancy.
This is not the time for the Celtics to look too far ahead, but that’s exactly what they’re doing — and it cost them Wednesday night against the Brooklyn Nets at TD Garden.
The Celtics left the parquet with a 101-93 loss, and regret.
“We’re stressing on the future and the future is not here yet,” Kevin Garnett said.
“We need to take this one game at a time and then start to prepare for whatever is after this.”
Milwaukee lost to Orlando, giving the Celtics have a three-game lead over the Bucks, who sit in eighth place in the Eastern Conference standings.
Like the Celtics, the Bucks have four games remaining.
And if the Celtics stumble to the finish line, Milwaukee could overtake them and drop Boston into eighth, earning it a first-round date with the Miami Heat.
“Honestly, we want to play Miami,” coach Doc Rivers said. “We do.”
“We would just not like to play them early. We would love to avoid Miami in the first round, and then play them. That would mean we’re doing very well. Clearly, we want to play Miami, we just want to delay it a little bit if we can.”
But the Celtics are in a tough place, which Rivers acknowledged.
The team has a load of prep work to do before the playoffs, and they struggled to balance that workload while preparing for a regular-season game.
“I told our team that I really felt like we’ve been talking about so much stuff and not enough about Brooklyn — and that was on me,” Rivers said.
The Celtics were passive, firing jump shots from all over instead of driving.
They didn’t attempt a free throw until 8:22 remained in the third quarter.
“We should never go a half where we take no free throws in a game,” said Paul Pierce, who scored a team-high 23 points. “That just shows a lack of aggression, a lack of trying to get to the basket, trying to get contact. There’s no excuse for it.”
By the time Pierce stepped to the line early in the third, the Celtics trailed by 12, largely thanks to an 11-0 Nets first-half run that gave them control.
The Celtics never really threatened. They chipped at the deficit but didn’t make a sizable dent. Brooklyn pulled away in the fourth, leading by as many as 19.
Free throws were the only statistic where true disparity existed:
Brooklyn made 25 of 28; the Celtics made 13 of 17 — 6 of 7 from Pierce in that third quarter.
“They came in with a better sense of urgency, like the playoffs are right around the corner, and we sort of eased into it, and we can’t do that with a week and a half left,” Pierce said.
“They came out with more purpose than us, you saw from the beginning to the end, and we’ve got to understand, we’ve got to raise our intensity at this point of the season.”
Avery Bradley was matched up against All-Star guard Deron Williams, and Williams went right at the defensive ace.
Bradley couldn’t keep up. He was called for four quick fouls. He played 12 minutes.
“Then once I saw that he was in foul trouble, I tried to be a little bit more aggressive,” Williams said.
Williams finished with a game-high 29 points and 12 assists. Brook Lopez added 21 points and Joe Johnson scored 20. Reggie Evans grabbed 14 rebounds.
Pierce agreed that the loss was an example of the Celtics not maintaining a high level of play throughout games, an inconsistency he had said they hoped to fix.
“We don’t talk on defense, we let constant dribble penetration from the guards without helping,” Pierce said.
“I mean, it’s obvious who the stars on their team are. I mean, Deron Williams, Joe Johnson. We can’t allow their stars to go out there and have huge nights. They’re going to go to them every night.
“We’ve got to do a better job communicating with each other, getting the ball out of their hands so they don’t have the nights like [had] tonight.”
Outside of Pierce, the Celtics were mostly no-shows.
Jeff Green missed 13 of 17 shots, scoring 11 points. Brandon Bass had 10 points, Garnett finished with 11.
Rivers would like to rest Pierce and Garnett, and one or both may sit during back-to-back games in Miami (Friday) and Orlando (Saturday).
But that puts Rivers and the Celtics in the precarious position of trying to win so that they can avoid Miami in the playoffs, while also resting the players that help them win.
“Let’s say we need to win them all, but Kevin and Paul were struggling,” Rivers said. “Then you would have to rest Kevin and Paul and hope you can win the game.
“That’s just the way it is. I don’t love being in that situation, honestly. I’d love not to be, but that’s the situation we’re in.”
Few, if any, situations the Celtics have faced this season have been ideal, and that will continue to season’s end, but the Celtics can’t afford to look ahead. Not yet.Baxter Holmes can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.