Are the Celtics set to collapse in the NBA playoffs again?

For years now, the Celtics have been a team on the brink. The type of brink depends wholly on where you stand. From the bottom of the mountain, looking up, the Celtics might seem like a group about to summit the peak that has eluded them for several grueling and embarrassing seasons. But, perched at a vantage point on the other side of the aforementioned mountain, you might see that actually, that peak is the ledge of a chasm, and the Celtics are primed to plummet off the edge and right down into it.

Perspective is the most important, if elusive, thing in NBA basketball.

Certainly, the Celtics have looked the part of a dual offensive and defensive juggernaut this season, dispatching every franchise in the league (except for the Nuggets) with cool efficiency. Boston’s brand of basketball is the quick slice of a very sharp knife: flashy, neat, capable of making several deep cuts, and retreating before the blood wells up. They aren’t a group that welcomes much mess on the floor, which has wound up being one of their biggest problems.

Last season, Boston battled through two long series against the Hawks and Sixers, before being thoroughly upended by the Miami Heat in the Eastern Conference Finals. It was a gut punch for a group that went down 3-0, dragged themselves back by winning three arduous games in a row, then got punted off the mountain by a Heat team that appeared somehow sprightly in a Game 7 that was over by the second quarter. The season before, Boston made it to the Finals and let a 2-1 lead slip to the Warriors.

What the Heat and the Warriors had on the Celtics, beyond obvious firepower, was the capacity to pressure Boston and revel in the discomfort that followed. Heat Culture can be described as a lot of things, but can also be summarized as “annoying.” The way Jimmy Butler, Bam Adebayo, and the rest of Miami— all the way down to the bench — forced turnovers by getting up close and pressuring Jayson Tatum and Jaylen Brown to dribble their way out of defensive traps leeched Boston’s confidence with enough frequency to win four games. Even with better offensive rebounding (26% to Miami’s 23.5%), and making it to the line more often, turnovers cost Boston (the 2020 Heat team that beat the Celtics in the third round did the same).

The Warriors also forced Brown and Tatum into close quarters — Klay Thompson took to guarding Al Horford with a menacing, if effervescent relish — and got the same results: a turnover percentage of 15.1 to the Dubs 12.3.

Brad Stevens, Libra that he is, is an analytical executive. To his credit he’s recognized what needs shoring up in those losses, like quickly trading for (and then extending) Jrue Holiday and bringing in Kristaps Porzingis to start the season, a body big enough to respond to the squeeze teams were putting on Tatum and Brown. The former move is sound as it was necessary, Holiday is having a fantastic season, his effective field goal and three-point percentages are the highest they’ve been in his 14-year career. He’s also a savvy outlet when Tatum is getting doubled and tripled. Porzingis, when he’s played, has provided a boon of size and surprising scoring, but his consistency in the postseason remains a big question. When he was with the Mavericks, Porzingis played a total of 10 playoff games — three in his first year, seven in his second, all in the first round against the Clippers. Dallas lost both matchups.

The West, as effortful as advancing there is, boasts a quality of order forced by experience and skill. The East, with its perennial contenders locked in a kind of purgatory of their own making, and the successfully sown seeds of parity in the conference’s smaller markets jockeying for contention, is a different beast. Porzingis has never set foot in the quagmire of the postseason there, a murky, volatile landscape riddled with chaos, snarled by confusion.

In other words, a mess. The thing the Celtics abhor most.

As a coach, Joe Mazzulla has grown more comfortable with discomfort, understanding where deviation is necessary and willing his team to adapt. He renewed the team’s efforts in the post, shaking off the rigidity of a five-out offense and opting for mismatches which he re-dubbed the “cross-match.” The Celtics offense flows out of opponents picking up their preferred defensive assignments quickly, and Boston overwhelming them if they don’t. It’s a scheme that hinges on pre-empting an opponent’s defense and trusting that his team can adapt on the fly.

Mazzulla said as much earlier this winter when asked why he’s less adamant on timeouts than other NBA coaches. He credited soccer coaches, who don’t get to call timeouts, and thus instill in their players intuitiveness and creativity when adapting to a game in motion. It’s an interesting theory, and certainly adaptable when considering those qualities are prevalent in basketball’s best, but most professional soccer players have been conditioned their whole careers to compete that way. In a close playoff game, a shrewd timeout can be a strategic energy disruptor, a needed reset on either end of the floor, a psychological feint, a rest for tired legs, or an opportunity to rehash details that have blanked from bright lights.

It can be ticky-tacky to critique winning teams at the end of the NBA’s regular season if their dominance slips some, but for the Celtics it’s been telling — and not only from the on-court action.

After Boston fell to the Knicks — the team’s second loss after being beaten by the Bucks a game earlier — Mazzulla critiqued his team’s effort in the first half, but then made a strange categorization, “We ran into our last two games against two teams that are highly, highly desperate,” he said.

Despite their internal ups-and-downs, and Giannis Antetokounmpo’s recent calf strain, the Bucks finished third in the east. The Knicks, who ended the season in second, don’t have a whiff of desperation on them. Brown admitted the team had been “out-toughed” in those two games, backing up from the physicality brought to them, a shift he attributed to anticipation for the playoffs. Porzingis also seemed surprised, noting that when the team has evened out the intensity in most close games this season, “we always have the advantage and start building.” These admissions are small, but they’re illuminating – the Celtics are accustomed to playing ahead and have been thrown off-kilter when they don’t, or can’t.

A deceleration, now, is not ideal. Many first-seeded teams have fallen into the same idling trap, and spent struggling rounds fighting to regain the momentum necessary to win in each of the postseason’s long and highly changeable games. True, the Nuggets got called on the same thing last year and went on to win, but Denver has a play style closer to a locomotive. The Celtics have a playoff history of losing steam.

Charles Barkley called the Celtics out for the shift, recalling a season in which he and his teammates had done the same.

“We had the best record in the NBA, and we shut it down the last two weeks of the season. It took us two rounds of the playoffs to get it back,” Barkley said of the 1992-1993 Phoenix Suns. Those Suns would lose to the Bulls in the Finals.

Since Mazzulla pointed it out, desperation, it’s worth noting, takes on a different quality in the playoffs. Namely that some form of it is necessary to win, to keep winning. It looks different on every team, but it always translates to an understanding of the stakes, and the willingness to play with tooth and nail to stay in it. To lean into the mess and get a little ugly. Over the weekend, Mazzulla said the Celtics were ready, and that the postseason isn’t so different from the regular season. He also said he plans to put the team through high-stress practices this week to prepare them, noting that in playoff games “it comes down to the margins, [to] execution.”

He isn’t wrong about the margins, or the exact execution knocking out four wins in a series requires, but something about ramping up the stress now betrays an oversight with the potential to topple this team from the playoffs once more.

The Celtics play beautiful basketball. Regimented yet airy, quick and still clean, but it all can come crumbling down with the barest of pressure. Boston could learn a thing or two from desperate teams — teams like Miami last season, who hung in by their fraying tendons, or the Warriors of 2022 with their dynasty on the line — the question is how they see themselves heading into the playoffs, and whether they’re out of time to change their perspective.

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