The week leading up to the All-Star break was an accurate microcosm of the Celtics’ season. First, they reached perhaps the low point of Brad Stevens’s tenure, coughing up leads of 18 and 28 points in consecutive home losses to the Lakers and Clippers.
Then they went on the road without injured All-Star Kyrie Irving and grabbed one of their most impressive wins of the season by defeating the new-look 76ers before returning home and blitzing the Pistons the next night. It was another example of how dangerous this team can be when it is clicking.
“I think it’s just been a learning experience,” center Al Horford said. “I know that we all wanted it to go very smooth, and I know everyone else expected that from us as well, but sometimes, you have to be humbled as a group. You have to learn, and you have to understand that you have to play a certain way to win.”
On Thursday, the season will resume with a road game against the Bucks, who have the best record in the NBA and are 23-5 in their sparkling new arena.
Although this season has largely been a disappointment for the Celtics (37-21) thus far, it ultimately will be defined by the team’s playoff performance.
Last season the Raptors had the best record in the East and did not even reach the conference finals, and the Rockets had the best record in the NBA, and then were reminded that the Warriors still exist.
But the Celtics cannot simply ease into the postseason. While wins will not be essential in the next few weeks, getting healthy, finding a rhythm, and reestablishing roles will be.
If Gordon Hayward can continue his recent surge, and if Jaylen Brown and Terry Rozier consistently can be weapons off the bench, anything could be possible with this group.
“It takes time,” Horford said. “I just think it takes time. I just feel like the regular season is to prepare us. All these lessons are to prepare us for when the postseason starts.”
The Celtics are currently 6½ games behind the Bucks and 5½ behind the second-place Raptors. With just 24 games left and a back-heavy slate, those margins will be nearly insurmountable.
The Celtics have the sixth-toughest remaining schedule in the NBA, with opponents boasting a combined winning percentage of .526. In addition to Thursday’s game at Milwaukee, they also still have to face the Raptors and Warriors on the road.
The Bucks, meanwhile, have just the 26th-most difficult schedule (.472 combined winning percentage), while the Raptors have the easiest (.450).
With the Nets sitting a distant sixth in the East, the Celtics, Pacers, and 76ers will almost certainly tussle for spots 3-5. Indiana’s All-Star guard Victor Oladipo is out for the year with a knee injury, but the Pacers have remained stubborn without him and sit one game ahead of Boston and Philadelphia.
The Bucks and Raptors are both dangerous at the top, so there is not much difference between the potential semifinal matchups against them that would coincide with the third and fourth slots.
But the Celtics, Pacers, and 76ers will all be trying to avoid ending up in the fifth spot, because that would not come with home-court advantage in the first round.
Despite Boston’s success against the 76ers, opening the playoffs in Philadelphia would be a disaster scenario. The Celtics should be able to overcome a road series against a Pacers team without Oladipo, but they would prefer not to deal with any of that.
This might be the best-case scenario for a Celtics push to the Finals: Secure the No. 3 seed and ride home-court advantage to a first-round win against, say, the Nets or the Hornets, and then hope that the 76ers ultimately defeat the Bucks or the Raptors in a conference semifinal.
The biggest road block — by far — would be winning their own semifinal without home-court advantage against Milwaukee or Toronto. But if they did, they would then have home court in the conference finals against a Philadelphia team that they have dominated.
For the Celtics, the final months of this season could have reverberations that affect the franchise for years.
Irving has said he will opt out of the final year of his contract and become a free agent this summer, an expected move because of the financial implications. But he has been less firm about his October pledge to re-sign with the Celtics, and a dispiriting end to the season could affect his thinking.
Furthermore, the Celtics remain obsessively focused on acquiring Anthony Davis from the New Orleans Pelicans this summer.
Davis will become a free agent after next season, and his camp has made it quite clear that he would like to become a Laker.
The Celtics remain confident that they would be able to convince him that Boston is the best long-term home, but without Irving in the fold, it would change everything.
But a Finals run that comes up just short against the Warriors could be the perfect sell for both Irving and Davis, showing both that the franchise is on the cusp of being elite, but that it needs both of them in order to reach the summit.
Until that time, Irving’s words and actions will be dissected, and his friendships with Davis and impending free agent Kevin Durant will be pored over.