ORLANDO, Fla. — Summer has arrived in Florida, and the Celtics are hoping the warmer weather and more comfortable conditions can jump-start a late-season run that will allow them to avoid the NBA play-in tournament.
All of those disappointing losses over the past few months — two to the Pelicans, two to the Pistons, two to the Kings, and inexcusable losses to Cleveland and Oklahoma City — are coming back to haunt the Celtics, even though they are playing better and getting healthy.
The good news on Tuesday’s off day was that Jaylen Brown’s sprained right ankle is not serious, and he could be back Friday against the Bulls. Jayson Tatum and Kemba Walker practiced fully, while Tristan Thompson was listed as questionable for Wednesday’s game against Orlando with a chest strain.
The Celtics should be good enough to beat the severely shorthanded Magic, but nothing can be assumed with this team. It’s critical for coach Brad Stevens and the other team leaders to stress the importance of these final seven games.
The Celtics are in seventh place in the Eastern Conference, three games behind the fourth-seeded Knicks, with a monumental season finale at Madison Square Garden; the seventh through 10th teams participate in the play-in tournament for two slots.
The Knicks are catchable only because they are on a Western swing that includes games at Denver, Phoenix, and both Los Angeles teams, with home games against the Spurs, Hornets, and Celtics. The Knicks have played the best of any team in the Eastern Conference lately, so it may be a stretch to say the Celtics can catch them, but they would help their cause with a 6-1 finish.
The Celtics are one game behind the Heat for the sixth spot, with two gigantic home games against Miami next week. Sixth place isn’t all that desirable a place either, because that would mean a first-round matchup against Giannis Antetokounmpo and the Bucks.
The best-case scenario is sneaking into fifth and getting a first-round matchup with the Knicks or Hawks. Atlanta may have the best chance to claim the fourth seed because five of its last six games are at home, and the Hawks end ends they end the season against lottery-bound Orlando and Houston. Yet there also is a two-game home series with the suddenly surging Wizards in that stretch, too.
The Celtics legitimately have a chance to win their final seven, because the other opponents besides Miami and New York are Orlando, Chicago, Cleveland, and Minnesota. But if you’ve followed this team at all this season, you know they don’t do well with prosperity or as a heavy favorite.
Their record against the league’s downtrodden teams is why they are in this situation in the first place. The Celtics are going to have to be a team that plays at a level they have never approached this season to be a factor in the playoffs.
“It takes dedication,” shooting guard Evan Fournier said. “It takes focus from the first minute to the last minute. There’s no secret ingredient. We just have to do it the best we can. The team that plays the hardest and executes the best usually wins.”
Because of COVID-19 issues, chemistry problems, and some befuddling lackadaisical stretches, the Celtics find themselves as an afterthought in the Eastern Conference instead of a contender.
Do they have the talent to go 7-0 to end the season? Of course they do.
But does their past performance indicate that they are capable of such quality basketball? The answer is no.
Stevens is hoping the Celtics are healthy and motivated to show that they are who he thinks they really are.
If the the Celtics maintain his rest schedule, Walker would miss two of the final seven games —including the season finale against the Knicks — because they are the second games of back-to-back sets.
Yet they have proven capable of winning without him, and if Brown comes back fully healthy along with Fournier (who took his first COVID-19 vaccine shot this week and said he is improving), there is hope they can avoid the play-in tournament.
“We’re going to need every day to be something that adds to what we’re doing, because these last seven games are super meaningful, every single minute of every one of these games,” Stevens said.
“We played a team that was dialed in in Portland. We didn’t get beat on all the tough shots they hit when we were chasing them and they were still making them. We got beat on our turnovers and our rim decisions that led to run-outs [fast breaks].
“If you get to that point in the playoffs, that’s how you lose playoff series. That’s how you lose playoff games.
“Ultimately, we’ve got to correct that now, because our playoffs have clearly started. Hopefully we can have our best seven games defensively as we head into whatever our postseason opportunities are.”