The problem, of course, is that teams generally don’t collect a lot of Ws for just “hanging around.”
The 2012 Boston Celtics find themselves in the unenviable position of being good enough to compete, but not good enough to win. Their play since the All-Star break (15-7) and the fact that they’ve clawed their way into the top spot in the Atlantic Division would seemingly indicate otherwise, but all season long, the Celtics have repeatedly failed to show the killer instinct that made them champions in 2007-08.
One of the hallmarks of that championship squad was their ability to come back late in games. Including the playoffs, the '07-'08 Celtics posted a 10-16 record when trailing after three quarters; this current team is 6-22.
This contrast tells us two things.
The first, and most obvious, is that the huge discrepancy in winning percentage (.385 vs. .214) reveals just how much better that title-winning team was. In fact, the '07-'08 team was actually worse when trailing after three quarters than the team the following season (14-14, .500). And, although the '09-'10 (10-28, .263) and '10-'11 (8-18, .308) teams had less favorable percentages, these figures are still substantially better than this year’s team.
The other troubling statistic that jumps out is the number of times the Celtics have fallen behind. They have entered the fourth quarter trailing in 28 of their 54 games this season, a troubling .519 percentage. Including playoffs, the previous four teams trailed after three quarters at rates of .243 ('07-'08), .301 ('08-'09), .384 ('09-'10) and .302 ('10-'11).
An older group like this one simply can’t make a living on fourth-quarter comebacks. The combination of fatigue and degree of difficulty makes such a task brutally difficult for any team, let alone one with aging veterans battling injury problems and a lack of depth.
It is indeed this lack of depth that has hurt the Celtics more than anything else. Some of it is just bad luck; I defy you to find another NBA team that has lost two players to a heart condition in the same season. However, some of it has also been poor decision-making on personnel. Did anyone honestly think Jermaine O’Neal could stay healthy for even one full season?
Where this has hurt the Celtics most has been on the boards. The combination of injuries and lack of a true center has turned the Celtics into one of the worst rebounding teams in the NBA. They allow on average 12.0 offensive rebounds per game (tied for 23rd in the league), which leads to the second-chance points that have cost them many games—most recently against San Antonio.
The Celtics’ average rebounding differential is a staggering minus-5.1, good for 28th in the league and ranking ahead of only Charlotte and Golden State. When your only peers are two of the worst teams in the NBA, you probably aren’t going anywhere come playoff time.
Given the right matchup, of course, this Celtics team could possibly survive. However, this “right matchup” is likely not going to happen.
It is highly likely that the 76ers are going to pass the Celtics for the lead in the Atlantic Division. The Celtics hold a slim one-game lead, and given the youth and energy of the Sixers combined with the teams’ strength of schedule the rest of the way (.516 winning percentage for Boston’s opponents, .460 for Philadelphia’s), the Celtics will be hard-pressed to hold on to that lead.
Can the Celtics make it past the first round of the playoffs?
The result of losing this division lead is likely a seventh or eighth seed in the Eastern Conference playoffs, which gives the Celtics a date with either Miami or Chicago in the first round of the playoffs.
Quite simply, they can’t beat either of these teams in a seven-game series.
Both will dominate the Celtics on the glass and both have younger, fresher legs. In spite of the Celtics’ recent blowout win over Miami, it would be foolhardy to think that they could replicate those results multiple times over the course of a series. Chicago proved last night that, even without Derrick Rose, they can lock down the Celtics offense whenever they please.
While it has been a nice effort after the All-Star break in what is likely the last hurrah for the new Big Three, this run of good play from the aging Celtics will be merely an afterthought come playoff time. This team is still very good, but “very good” will not be enough to raise banner No. 18.