Tuesday did not mark the final concession of the No. 1 seed by the Celtics. Despite their late comeback falling short, 103-101, against the 76ers on a rest night for Jaylen Brown and Robert Williams III, Boston already effectively lost the east’s top spot they once firmly controlled.
Now, with three games left, a single Bucks win or Celtics loss firmly settles Boston into the No. 2 spot, as long as the 76ers lose one more game and Celtics win another.
“There’s nothing we can do about (1 seed), a lot of that is out of our control,” Joe Mazzulla said at practice on Monday before the loss. “What we can control is playing the way we played, last 11 games we’re 8-3, No. 1 in both offense & defense (last 11). We’re doing a lot of good things. We have to keep that going … (Bucks) game we were very detailed. We managed the game well. (Jazz) game, it was more a mindset win. We have to put that together as we head into the last stretch.”
Between that acknowledgement, and others from Marcus Smart, Jayson Tatum and Smart following a bad loss to Washington that accelerated the Bucks’ path toward clinching No. 1, the Celtics’ setback against Philadelphia became more indicative of growing numbers of slip-ups in recent months.
The loss didn’t cost the Celtics home court, some combination of dropping games against Oklahoma City, Houston, Utah, Orlando three times and Indiana did. Still, familiar lapses in execution, allowing Joel Embiid to score 52 points on 20-for-25 shooting, losing P.J. Tucker three times for crunch time corner threes in rotation and a poor last-second play call cost Boston a game that could’ve kept the dream of No. 1 alive.
The Celtics shot 15-for-45 (33.3%) from three, the 31st time they finished below league average over their past 53 games, falling to 12-19 in those games. Through their 21-5 start, the Celtics only fell below 36% from behind the arc, which only happened six times during Boston’s streak to begin the year. The Celtics sit at 37-5 when they surpass that threshold, most recently unloading on the Bucks from three in last week’s win, and they found a way to beat the Jazz on a 33.3% 3PT night by shooting 51 attempts to Utah’s 29, but Mazzulla noticed offensive issues on Tuesday, though not stemming from shooting.
“If you look at the box score, any time we miss threes and lose, it’s a thing,” he said. “But we got 13 more shots than they did. We got seven more offensive rebounds than they did. They only shot 16 free throws. We forced them into 12 turnovers, and we only had eight. It’s funny how that is the recipe for success for our team more times than not is to win on the margins. I thought we did a lot of good things throughout the entire game. You have a special night by a guy [Embiid], and they made some big shots down the stretch.”
Big wins over Milwaukee, Sacramento, San Antonio and others recently vaulted the Celtics back into a tie with Oklahoma City for top-10 offensive status since Dec. 8, the demarcation point in Boston’s hotter and colder offensive stretches of the season. It still adds up to an all-time offensive campaign on a points per possession basis. But the margins Mazzulla mentions have mattered more often in games like Tuesday’s, as they will in road games Tatum remains confident the Celtics can win.
Tatum found his three-point stroke for two games, finishing 13-for-18 from deep against the Bucks and Jazz, before starting 3-for-8 from the field against Philadelphia and never recovering. He grabbed three steals, dished six assists and only two turnovers, but Boston lost his minutes by 13 points after he shot 0-for-2 in the fourth quarter. 538’s RAPTOR metric now calculates Tatum’s minutes amounting to a -0.8 defensive net rating this year.
“I mean s***, I wasn’t guarding him,” Tatum told reporters in Philadelphia. “But he had a good game obviously. He willed his team to a victory.”
Aside from Embiid, the Sixers did struggle to score against an increasingly stable Celtics defense that keeps the game in front of it and contests shots. Philadelphia’s other players finished 19-for-53 (35.9% FG) and only Memphis boasts a better defensive rating than Boston’s 110.7 over its past 53 games. They rank 26th in opponent turnovers, but they’ve limited opponent free throws, offensive rebounds and shooting percentage as well as any other team, enough to make you feel comfortable about their upside on that end with Williams III available.
The offensive letdowns, where the giveaways tick up, where Tatum starts cold and can’t break out of the spell, where the crispness and off-ball activity doesn’t pop as much proved more concerning entering round one against what could be a sturdy defensive opponent in Miami or Toronto. Boston falling to No. 2 in the standings set up a chance to overlook an opponent that could make them work harder and harder than they need to in round one.
Basketball Reference bets on the Heat or Hawks. Atlanta owns a tiebreaker for the No. 8 seed with Toronto. The Raptors visit Boston for a two-game mini series starting tonight that could prove a playoff preview if the Celtics continue prioritizing rest. Tatum and Smart enter Wednesday night questionable, with Al Horford out.
That preparation for the playoffs began in Philadelphia last night, with Brown and Williams III on the bench instead of going all-out for whatever chance remained to grab the top seed. The Celtics don’t care about losing it, despite leading Milwaukee by 5.5 games on Jan. 22, and the last two champions won the NBA Finals as No. 3 seed, but 53 of the 76 teams that claimed the trophy did so as the top seed.
“In the playoffs, you’re gonna have to win games on the road at some point,” Tatum said last week. “Last year, we beat the Bucks in Game 6 … we beat Miami in Game 7 on the road, so at some point, you’re gonna have to go on the road and get a win.”