Are Celtics enduring a midseason malaise, or something more concerning?
Forsberg: Are the Celtics suffering from a midseason malaise? originally appeared on NBC Sports Boston
The Boston Celtics had won nine of 11 before Monday’s eyesore against the Knicks. Boston's primary rival needed a 14-game winning streak to catch the Celtics and end their near 100-day run as the best team in basketball.
So why does it feel like there’s so much angst around the green team coming off a dreadful night in New York?
The Celtics set a lofty standard early in the season, one they’ve struggled to maintain. Boston posted a 21-5 record to start the year and the team’s offense was on a historic pace.
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Since then? Boston's offense ranks 16th in the NBA. So despite having the fourth-best winning percentage in the league since December 10 -- only the Nuggets, 76ers, and Bucks have been better -- there’s a general uneasiness as the team hasn’t been able to quite sustain its early-season swagger.
We can easily dismiss the New York stumble. The Celtics were playing without All-Star Jaylen Brown, got a rough shooting night from a frustrated Jayson Tatum (and just about everyone else), and lost to a team playing some of its most inspired ball of the year.
The bigger question is whether Boston’s somewhat uneven play over the past two-plus months is the result of typical midseason malaise and injury woes, or part of a more concerning trend.
Expectations were high coming out of the All-Star break. The Celtics, who navigated never-ending health issues over the first 59 games of the season, were poised to finally have their starting five back in place after that group logged just one start together before the break.
Those starters, who dominated the NBA in the second half of last season, have struggled in their two games together to start the post-break stretch. The C's had to go to overtime to beat the Pacers, needed a Tatum last-second triple to avert disaster in Philadelphia, then let frustrations overwhelm them in New York.
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It sometimes feels like we’re waiting for this team to kick things back into overdrive. Last year’s second-half surge set a high bar for a team that sometimes looks content to just sort of trudge its way back to the games that truly matter.
Consider this: The Celtics went 28-7 over their final 35 games last season. They posted the best offensive rating (120.2) and defensive rating (104.8) in the NBA in that span. Their net rating of plus-15.5 wasn’t just the best in the NBA, it was nearly double the nearest rival.
The Celtics entered the playoffs dripping with swagger and screaming about how they weren’t going to run from anybody. They swept the Nets then clawed their way to the NBA Finals.
Last year’s launch started on January 23. If we look at Boston’s play since that point this year, we find a team that is 9-6 overall with a 115.2 offensive rating that ranks 16th in the NBA. The Celtics’ defensive rating is 112.0 in that span, good for eight overall, and the team sits sixth in net rating at plus-3.5.
That’s good, not great. And, as the Bucks rip off 14 straight wins to shuffle percentage points ahead of the Celtics in the East standings, it simply leaves us all wondering if and when Boston plans to launch again.
There are plenty of positives to accentuate. Derrick White and Malcolm Brogdon have been fantastic in recent weeks, allowing Boston to showcase the depth the team lacked last season. Jaylen Brown has been able to play despite a facial fracture and Boston should have its preferred starting five available more often moving forward. The team has routinely found ways to win ugly even when its play hasn’t been perfect.
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But there is still much to iron out. Tatum is slumping a bit and, despite big moments at the end of games against the Pacers and 76ers, hasn’t played to the MVP level he displayed earlier in the year.
Robert Williams III hasn’t been quite his explosive self on either end, but especially the defensive side as he continues to work himself back from a second knee procedure. The Celtics are still getting their starters on track and Joe Mazzulla is figuring out who to lean on in crunch-time moments when Boston’s offense has gone particularly cold.
Maybe the Celtics are simply enduring a midseason malaise that many contenders encounter. Maybe having been to the Finals a year ago -- and having run out of gas on that journey -- there’s a natural tendency to pace yourself and it’s harder to muster the night-to-night energy in the doldrums of the season.
The good news is that the Celtics continue to win games despite their issues. The bad news is that the Bucks refuse to lose even while they deal with their own injury woes.
The race for the No. 1 seed is on. Will the Celtics take their game up another level over the final 20 games, or will they bank on being able to do that when it matters most?