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If Celtics buckle down, they can still grab that fourth playoff spot

Celtics coach Brad Stevens believes the Celtics are headed in the right direction but can they stay the course?
Celtics coach Brad Stevens believes the Celtics are headed in the right direction but can they stay the course?Matthew J Lee/Globe staff

The conditions of this unpredictable and bizarre season mean slumps will be commonplace. The constant absences and change promise inconsistency.

The Celtics have been the model of such inconsistency. They are 25-25 after their impressive 116-86 win over the Charlotte Hornets on Sunday at TD Garden. The good news for the Celtics is they are joined by a handful of teams that have been equally as inconsistent.

Boston is one game back from the fourth seed in the Eastern Conference. The Celtics want to avoid the play-in tournament at all costs (which features the seventh to 10th seeds) and vie for home-court advantage in the first round.

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That outcome is pretty much the best the Celtics can do given their struggles over the past two months. The Philadelphia 76ers, Milwaukee Bucks and Brooklyn Nets have essentially locked up the first three seeds, but that doesn’t mean the Celtics couldn’t join them as a darkhorse club in the East.

It’s not too late for the Celtics. Luckily, they haven’t panicked because of their doldrums. President of basketball operations Danny Ainge made the necessary move to get Evan Fournier to boost the sagging franchise.

Fournier has become comfortable over the past two games — 11 3-pointers — and the ball has moved around the perimeter until the Celtics find the right shot. After falling behind, 16-7, in the opening five minutes, Boston responded with a 51-27 run and the injury-riddled Hornets were done.

Evan Fournier looking to pass during the first quarter of Sunday's win.
Evan Fournier looking to pass during the first quarter of Sunday's win.Matthew J Lee/Globe staff

A few days ago, Charlotte was one of the Celtics’ primary competitors for that fourth seed. But former Celtic Gordon Hayward again succumbed to a significant injury, spraining his foot Friday against Indiana. He will be out at least a month. He joins rookie sensation LaMelo Bell on the injured list, and the Hornets looked frazzled once the Celtics increased their defensive pressure.

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The Celtics are a much better team when scoring is balanced. Six players scored in double figures, led by Jayson Tatum’s 22 on just 15 shots. All five Celtics starters attempted at least eight shots and Fournier had nine off the bench.

It’s difficult to determine whether the Celtics are actually approaching their apex with wins over two shorthanded teams — Rockets and Hornets — but beating inferior teams is better than the alternative. The Celtics will get an opportunity to display their growth and transformation Tuesday when Philadelphia comes to the Garden.

The Celtics need to develop enough fortitude to forget their past miscues and treat the final six weeks like a new season. They are becoming more whole. Romeo Langford (remember him?) made his season debut Sunday and scored 3 points in 12 minutes.

Tristan Thompson is out of the league COVID-19 protocol, making his first sideline appearance in weeks. And he’s a couple of days of conditioning from returning. Reserve forward Semi Ojeleye could also be back in a couple of weeks.

“I haven’t looked at the standings in two weeks,” Celtics coach Brad Stevens said. “I know we’re bunched up with a bunch of other teams but I have no idea where everybody stands. Our only focus is on playing good basketball. We haven’t done that all year.”

Kemba Walker reacts after a three in the third quarter against the Hornets.
Kemba Walker reacts after a three in the third quarter against the Hornets.Matthew J Lee/Globe staff

There are signs of hope. The Celtics biggest obstacle this season has been themselves and overcoming their myriad of chemistry issues. The players want to win. They want team success but the path to the apex is difficult to navigate with this team, despite the success they enjoyed in the NBA Bubble.

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“I was hard on them after the Dallas game but we’ve been that [inconsistent] all year,” Stevens said. “We have understood our situation all year. We haven’t been whole at all. You saw a (Charlotte) team that now has a couple of their best wings out and it affects them. Charlotte will learn how to maximize that. You’ve got to find a way to navigate that. We didn’t do it perfect but we did navigate it to the point where we’re not too far away from where we need to be. Our record will hopefully improve if he can maintain that health.”

There are many challenges ahead, but the Celtics have enough pure talent to compete in the Eastern Conference.

“We’ve all talked about constantly everything we want to do is still in front of us,” Stevens said. “There’s no reason to get out of sorts. No reason to ride the rollercoaster of if we lose the sky is falling. We’re just here trying to get better. Hopefully we’ll stay that way and if we do, we might be tough to beat.

“If we structurally can continue to improve offensively and we can play defensive at the intensity level at most of the last four games, then again the goal would be we could be a handful. That’s what we’ll keep shooting for.”

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There’s still plenty of time left but the Celtics didn’t do themselves any favors in their first 48 games. But that’s the past, and the hope is they have enough fortitude to move forward and flourish.


Gary Washburn can be reached at gary.washburn@globe.com. Follow him on Twitter @GwashburnGlobe.