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As the Celtics’ freefall continues, the 76ers lurk in the playoff hunt

Brad Stevens's Celtics have been crossed up of late, dropping four of five, including four straight games at home.Matthew J. Lee/Globe Staff

Those Celtics fans who have abandoned delusions of grandeur for the home team and are thinking in realism (or pessimism) after another disheartening loss Sunday will be fully prepared for the worst-case playoff scenario.

Boston’s freefall over the past week has it descending into a first-round playoff matchup with the Philadelphia 76ers, the team they’d probably least like to play in a first-round scenario.

The 76ers’ inability to win on the road coupled with the Celtics’ inability to win at home makes them a perfect first-round pair without about five weeks left in the season.

Sure, the Celtics could make a late run at No. 2 seeded Toronto, whom they trail by three games after the Raptors won in Sacramento on Friday night, but with the way they’re playing of late, that seems highly unlikely. Especially after the 105-104 loss to Oklahoma City, they appear locked for the third seed or worse.

Philadelphia is one game behind Indiana for the fifth seed, but they have been playing lately without All-Stars Joel Embiid and Ben Simmons. If the 76ers get healthy, and with 11 of their final 18 games at home, they could catch the Pacers.


But the 76ers have been such a stunning disappointment, it’s difficult to envision consistency for a prolonged run to catch Indiana or even fourth-seeded Miami.

Marcus Smart had 10 rebounds on Sunday, but shot just 7 for 17 and was a minus-14.Matthew J. Lee/Globe Staff

The Celtics, meanwhile, aren’t even certain for No. 3. They now lead Miami by just 1½ games after four losses in five games, with matchups against Indiana and Milwaukee next. The Celtics went through a similar skid two months ago, and like that slump, this one arrived suddenly.

Boston returned home from a 3-1 West Coast road trip, Jayson Tatum was being compared to Kevin Durant, and they were still playing without Kemba Walker.

Now Walker’s back but he’s slumping. Teams are hip to Tatum being able to score 40 and are stifling him defensively while Jaylen Brown and Gordon Hayward have each missed time with injuries.


Hayward came back Sunday and the Celtics should have been good enough to earn this win, but quiet as it has been kept, Walker is really slumping and for the second time in three games he was unable to catch an inbounds pass late in a game without being stripped or forced a jump ball.

This time he dribbled away from the charging Chris Paul and spun right into Dennis Schroder, who scored the eventual winning layup with 8.5 seconds left after forcing a loose ball. Walker sat in his locker for several minutes with only his game shorts on and a towel over his head.

While he made the game’s pivotal mistake, he also was 4-for-14 shooting for just 14 points.

His past 10 games, dating back to Jan. 28, Walker is averaging 17.5 points on 37.8 percent shooting and 32.9 percent from the 3-point line. Walker has not scored more than 27 points in a game in six weeks.

The good news is he said his troublesome right knee is “really good,” but he knows he’s got to be better for the Celtics to be successful.

“I’ve had some pretty good looks, but it’s just not going down,” Walker said. “I’m going to keep working towards. I’ll get better. I’ll be there for my teammates for sure. It’s only my third game back (from injury). It’s tough for me because I know I can make those shots I’m taking but at the moment it’s not falling. It’s not the first time I’ve had a stretch like this in my career. I’ll be better.”


At this point, the Celtics’ primary goal has to be getting Walker untracked while Tatum makes adjustments to how he’s being defended. Tatum shot 38 percent in the past four games and on Sunday he attempted just one free throw.

Chris Paul defends against Jayson Tatum late Sunday's game.Michael Dwyer/Associated Press

This skid was unexpected. An overtime loss to Houston, followed by that debacle and blown lead against Brooklyn, a win at Cleveland followed by home losses to Utah and Oklahoma City.

“We can’t hang our heads on the past week, we’ve just got to get the next one,” Tatum said. “The NBA is tough every night but we’ve got to have a short-term memory and move on to the next one on Tuesday.”

The Celtics were stellar in the early going about not giving away winnable games. If they lost, it was because they weren’t the best team on the floor. They made their opponents earn wins. And while they have played hard during this skid, they haven’t always played well, letting up on Houston, Brooklyn and Oklahoma City where they had double-digit halftime leads in each game.

They soared to an 18-point lead with 1:08 left in the first half and then allowed the Thunder to score 7 points in the final 51.8 seconds of the half, giving them the momentum heading into the second half. And then Tatum and Walker went a combined 1-for-9 shooting in the third quarter and the lead was completely blown.


These lapses have to be concerning. With Walker struggling and Tatum being defended with extra emphasis, the Celtics are struggling to get easy points. Hayward finished with 24 points Sunday, but it required 19 shots, and he has attempted fewer free throws this season than Brad Wanamaker and Marcus Smart.

Unless they want to face the 76ers in the first round, the Celtics need to get themselves together. They need Brown back. They need a better Walker and they need Tatum to hit the lab and devise a counter strategy to these new defense. If not, Embiid and Simmons could be waiting in April.

Gary Washburn is a Globe columnist. He can be reached at gary.washburn@globe.com. Follow him @GwashburnGlobe.