When oddsmakers posted their annual over-under win totals for the 2019 NBA season, it was no surprise that the Boston Celtics were at the top of the list. Boston’s 57.5 wins were the most in the Eastern Conference and second in the league to only the Warriors’ 63.5 win total.
The Celtics entered the year having just won 55 games and were one win away from an NBA Finals berth, and now All-Stars Kyrie Irving and Gordon Hayward were returning to a stacked team with one of the best coaches in the league.
And yet, for all that talent the Celtics have hit yet another rough patch that could make their path to the NBA Finals a much more difficult one. They cruised through the latter portion of January and early February, winning 10 of 11 games, with a loss to the Warriors their only blemish. That stretch pushed them to 35-19, third in the East and within striking distance of Milwaukee and Toronto.
But since that win over the Cavaliers it’s been a nightmare for Brad Stevens’ group. Beginning with a home loss to the Lakers on a Rajon Rondo buzzer beater, the Celtics have lost seven of their last 10 games and dropped all the way to fifth in the East.
In that stretch the Celtics have been an unfathomable 27th in offense, in front of only the Kings, Grizzlies and Mavericks and directly behind the 14-win Suns and 13-win Knicks. Even the defense has faltered, ranking 16th over the last month to give Boston a net rating of -4.4, 25th in the league and right behind the Cleveland Cavaliers and their -4.2 net rating.
They’ve had stretches like this before. They lost four of five in November on two different occasions, lost five of eight in December and lost three straight in January.
And yet they responded each time. After the November hiccups they reeled off eight straight wins. After the December struggles, they won four straight and nine of 12 games. And after the mini losing streak in January they won the aforementioned 10 of 11 games.
So another hot stretch could be on the way, but they’ll need it. Even in a weak Eastern Conference the Celtics are truly fighting for playoff positioning. The difference between third and fifth place is night and day.
If they remain in fifth they’ll be on the road in a series against one of Philadelphia or Indiana, both of whom are 24-9 at home this season. They would then likely play the league-leading Milwaukee Bucks in Round 2 instead of avoiding them until a potential Eastern Conference Finals matchup as the No. 3 seed.
They’re 2.5 games back of the Sixers, who have had their own struggles but should be getting Joel Embiid back this week. And they’re three games behind the Pacers, who continue to show resolve after losing Victor Oladipo to a season-ending knee injury.
The Celtics’ best bet is to catch Indiana. The Pacers have lost three of four and still have the sixth toughest schedule in the NBA remaining. That includes two games against the Celtics in late March and early April, so the fight for homecourt advantage in Round 1 could come down to those two games (we’ll assume the Sixers, with a healthy Embiid, take the third seed).
Oddsmakers aren’t betting on the Celtics turning it around. In just the last week they’ve dipped from +1200 to +1400 to win the 2019 title. On top of their struggles, there’s dysfunction in the locker room, specifically with Irving and the younger players. Hayward hasn’t returned to his pre-injury form and Jayson Tatum hasn’t made a significant jump after his impressive rookie season.
At this point it’s time to look elsewhere in the East for bettors. The Bucks are cruising, the Raptors were aggressive at the trade deadline and are getting healthy, and the Sixers have arguably the best starting five in the East. It just doesn’t feel like the Celtics’ year, and if they can’t secure homecourt advantage and have to play the Bucks in Round 2 – a team they are 1-2 against this season – their title dreams will be dashed in mid-May.
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