Forsberg: Will the Celtics Be Locked in When it Matters Most?

Forsberg: Will these Celtics be locked in when it matters most? originally appeared on NBC Sports Boston



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The Boston Celtics have produced some of their best basketball this season against elite competition. That should be an encouraging sign for their playoff chances, and yet it only makes their regular-season dips in intensity against inferior teams all the more maddening.

An Easter basket full of losses to sub-.500 teams like the Rockets and Magic will almost certainly deliver the Celtics to the No. 2 seed in the Eastern Conference. Not having home court in a potential showdown with the Milwaukee Bucks adds a layer of difficulty in getting back to the championship stage.

The Celtics can shrug off losses like Tuesday night to the shorthanded Wizards but they don’t make you feel any better about their chances of locking in when it really matters. Just when it appeared the Celtics were starting to launch, they fumbled away much of the good vibes that had been built during a dominating three-game winning streak.

Forsberg: Celtics could pay price for not showing up vs. bad teams

The team will cling to the way it has played against the best teams. The Celtics are 15-7 against the nine other teams that reside in the top 10 in the NBA in point differential, per Cleaning the Glass data. With a win on Thursday night against Milwaukee, Boston would own the NBA’s best record against those elite teams.

What’s more, Boston owns the best offensive rating against those top 10 teams at 119.1. And no other team is within two points (second place: Philadelphia, 117).

It’s rather wild that Boston’s winning percentage against the top 10 teams in point differential (.681) is nearly identical to its mark against the bottom 10 (.689). The Celtics should be dominating the lottery-bound teams but have brought variable intensity on those nights. Ten teams have better winning percentages against the bottom 10 teams, including East rivals like Cleveland (.815), Milwaukee (.759), and Philadelphia (.750).

Playing to their competition
Celtics' winning percentage against top-10 teams (by point diff.)
Celtics' winning percentage against bottom-10 teams (by point diff.)

So the question becomes, do you trust the Celtics to lock in when the playoffs arrive?  They’ve proven they can hang with the NBA’s elite, but can they bring the necessary focus for the entirety of a potential two-month playoff grind?

If you’re leery, it’s understandable. After Sunday’s shellacking of the lottery-bound Spurs, Malcolm Brogdon declared the Celtics were gunning for the No. 1 seed. Forty-eight hours later, Boston sleepwalked to a loss against a Wizards team missing two of its best players.

It’s unlikely the Celtics can change the minds of skeptics over the final six games of the season. Seeding for the East’s top squads might be locked up after Thursday’s visit to Milwaukee, a game that’s already lost a bit of air with the Bucks now owning a three-game lead over Boston atop the East. The Celtics only have an 8.8 percent chance of landing the No. 1 seed based on Basketball Reference’s daily simulations and really would need the Bucks' wheels to come off to make any sort of surge.

Instead, the Celtics are likely to prioritize rest over the final five games of the season while clinging to the hope that having their full complement of players will fuel their playoff quest.

But Boston must find a way to be laser-focused in the postseason. When engaged, this team has proven it's championship-caliber. When the Celtics get frustrated or show up expecting to win, they are easily beatable.

The only way to prove that all those maddening regular-season losses were just "one of those nights," is to bring it every night in the postseason.

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