The narrative that a young and inexperienced team is more prone to struggling on the road in the playoffs can often be blown out of proportion.
In the case of the Celtics, though, it’s not really a hot take, but more so an observation that has manifested into a fact.
After finishing with the third-best road record in the NBA during the regular season at 28-13 — and winning more games on the road than at home — the Celtics have struggled mightily away from TD Garden so far during the playoffs. Following Saturday’s 116-86 drubbing against the Cavaliers, Boston is now 1-5 as the visitor as opposed to 9-0 as the host.
Against Milwaukee in the first round, the home team won every game as the Celtics survived in seven. Boston stole Game 3 in Philadelphia for its only road win this postseason, then held off the 76ers in Game 5 at home.
This series, against the Cavaliers, is perhaps the most jarring example through three games. After routing LeBron James and Co. in Game 1 and earning a Game 2 victory, the Celtics were unable to keep Game 3 remotely close.
Marcus Smart says of Game 3, “That left a bad taste in your mouth.” Says the team is highly motivated to bounce back tomorrow night.
— Boston Celtics (@celtics) May 20, 2018
“We were clearly not the harder-playing, more connected team tonight,” Celtics coach Brad Stevens told reporters after the game.
The Cavaliers buried 17 of 34 three-pointers, had six players score in double-figures, and out-rebounded the Celtics, 45-34. Boston looked out of sorts on both ends and never got into a rhythm.
“We needed to get our butts whipped, come back to reality,” Terry Rozier told reporters.
This trend is obviously alarming to Celtics fans, but how does it compare to notable Celtics teams of the past and other NBA teams this postseason?
The 2008 Celtics team is a natural jumping off point. With the 10-year anniversary coming up and daydreams of duck boats becoming less far-fetched by the draft pick, let’s take a look back at how that team did at home and on the road.
While many pundits predicted the Celtics would steamroll the Hawks, an Al Horford-led Atlanta team actually took Boston to seven. Just like in this year’s Bucks series, the home team won each of the seven games as the Celtics cruised to a Game 7 victory.
In the next round, against none other than LeBron’s Cavaliers, the exact same scenario unfolded. Both teams won at home, and the Celtics outlasted the Cavs in an instant classic in Game 7.
The series against the Pistons was quite different, as Detroit swiped Game 2, but the Celtics snatched Games 3 and 6 on the road. Then in the Finals, the Celtics captured Game 4 in Los Angeles and went on to win their first NBA title since 1986.
So, in the end, they went 13-1 at home and 3-9 on the road. The main takeaway here, albeit in a small sample size, is that winning a championship typically requires some resilience on the road, but top seeds surviving early based on home-court moxie isn’t all that uncommon.
Celtics in 2008
Hawks 4-0 home, 0-3 road
Cavaliers 4-0 home, 0-3 road
Pistons 2-1 home, 2-1 road
Lakers 3-0 home, 1-2 road
Total: 13-1 home, 3-9 road
Naturally an NBA champion is going to eventually have some success on the road, but what about a more recent — though, at the same time, almost entirely different — Celtics team?
The start to last year’s playoff run was somewhat unusual, as the plucky Celtics grinded their way to the No. 1 seed and lost two games at home to an energized Rajon Rondo and the Bulls to start the series.
With Rondo sidelined the rest of the way, however, the Celtics ripped off four-straight wins — three of them coming on the road — to survive in six. Home-court advantage didn’t exist.
The Wizards series was back to the way it often unfolds, as the home team prevailed in all seven games. Against the Cavs, in the Eastern Conference Finals, the Celtics found a way to take Game 3 on the road, but fell in five.
Celtics in 2017
Bulls 1-2 home, 3-0 road
Wizards 4-0 home, 0-3 road
Cavaliers 0-3 home, 1-1 road
Total: 5-5 home, 4-4 road
It’s not always as stark of a contrast as it has been in 2018. There are times when the home team loses a string of games and the road team earns a couple victories, but it just hasn’t happened this year.
2018 NBA playoffs as a whole
If it feels like this phenomenon extends past the Celtics and to the rest of the NBA, that’s because it does. In the first round this year, home teams went 34-11. Though that record dipped to 12-7 in the conference semifinals, it’s ballooned to 4-1 in the conference finals as of Sunday night.
The Bucks were 0-3 on the road, the 76ers were 2-3, and the Cavaliers are 3-4. While it’s natural for fans to get frustrated about the Celtics’ woes away from home, just remember… They’re not alone.
"Right now, with the way [the Cavs are] playing," says Brad Stevens, "we're going to need some other guys ready (to contribute) come Monday."
— Boston Celtics (@celtics) May 20, 2018
The pattern — as baffling and inexplicable as it can be — is just part of the game.
“They always respond,” Stevens told reporters after Game 3. “This will be another challenge to respond to.”