In the last five seasons, home teams in the NBA playoffs won 62 percent of their games. Looking specifically at the 4 vs. 5 first-round series, the underdogs have won 7 of 10, but home teams there hold an even stronger edge, winning 64 percent of their games. (No. 5 seeds are 21-7 at home in postseasons 2014-18.)
So, does seeding matter? Kyrie Irving’s maintained it doesn’t much for weeks. Al Horford, meanwhile, called home court “very important” after Boston maintained control of fourth in the East by holding off Miami on Monday night. Brad Stevens, for his part, said on Monday that he plans to keep both veterans in the lineup, but “if we get to the point where either we’ve secured in the fourth or fifth seed, maybe that changes our mindset a little bit towards the end of the week.”
The battle is simple enough to understand. Boston and Indiana both enter Wednesday at 46-32 with four games to play. Both play the road half of home-and-homes on Wednesday night — Pacers at Detroit, Celtics at Miami — before meeting each other in Indianapolis on Friday. The Celtics host Orlando on Sunday while the Pacers host Brooklyn, then finish the regular season at Washington next Tuesday. Indiana plays the next night at Atlanta, but its fate could be sealed given Boston already owns the season-series tiebreaker.
All this obscures the larger point, though: How did this become what we’re watching? An Eastern Conference contender, if not the outright favorite, needing to win out to reach 50 victories and assure itself at least one series with the edge?
Twelve home losses will do it, as will 12 to sub-.500 teams. Ten losses when ahead or tied at the half, seven losses when ahead or tied after three, or perhaps most guttingly, 12 losses in games Boston lead by double-digits.
Kyrie threw the ball into the crowd after Jamal Murray's attempt to make 50-points as the game ended pic.twitter.com/Vbx3oNxmaf
— Celtics on NBC Sports Boston (@NBCSCeltics) November 6, 2018
Nov. 5, 2018: Jamal Murray’s 48 points in Denver
Two nights after they squandered a 13-point lead in Indiana, another loss ended with Kyrie Irving heaving the game ball some 50 feet into the crowd, frustrated by the 21-year-old heaving up a last-second 3-point attempt to try and clear 50 points.
Also, probably by Murray’s hot shooting erasing an 18-point first-quarter lead. The Celtics shot better than 50 percent and simply couldn’t keep up, their to-that-point No. 1 defense torn asunder.
Nov. 19, 2018: Kemba Walker, Part 1
The UConn product will set a career high in points per game this season, his eighth as a pro, and he can point to what he did to the Celtics as a big part of it. Two nights after hanging 60 on the 76ers in a 3-point loss, Boston led in Charlotte by 10 with 9:37 to play. Walked proceeded to score 18 of his team’s 20 points in a game-clinching run, as he scored 21 of his 43 in the fourth. None of his teammates had more than 18 for the game.
Not exactly the response to adversity Stevens had called for earlier in the week, after the Celtics missed 16 of 17 second-half 3-point tries in Utah.
Dec. 31, 2018: Quarter-century quarter in San Antonio
Losing on the road to the Spurs is hardly shameful, no matter the Celtics season. This one, however, stung. Boston led by 6 at the half, 52-46, then allowed the Spurs to bag 46 more — their best quarter in 25 years — just in the third quarter. San Antonio hit 19 of 25 (76 percent) in the period, 67.4 percent in the second half, and the Celtics got taken advantage of physically at a time they were without both Aron Baynes and Robert Williams.
Celtics lose to the Magic 105-103.
Kyrie Irving was not happy about how the final play unfolded… pic.twitter.com/ErPmpPSYla
— Celtics Direct (@CelticsDirect) January 13, 2019
Jan. 12, 2019: ‘We have a lot of learning to do’
Up 10 at the half only to have four Orlando players, including Terrence Ross (18) off the bench post double-figures in the second half, this one looked like a game where Kyrie Irving would save the day. He had 15 fourth-quarter points in less than eight minutes and stood on the floor with three seconds left, thinking the final play would go through him. Instead, Gordon Hayward went to Jayson Tatum, who missed and left the Celtics two points shy.
“You’ve got to do the right things. You can’t gamble and think that it’s going to be the winning play,” Irving told reporters in the nadir of his public criticism of teammates. “What’s the big picture? What are we doing here? These are things I don’t think some of my teammates have faced just every single day.”
Jan. 14, 2019: The 44-21 third quarter … in Brooklyn
A 1-point halftime deficit to the sub-.500 Nets doesn’t seem so bad when you’re suddenly down 24 entering the fourth quarter. In a season full of 12-minute disappearances, two stand above the rest: The second quarter in Toronto on Feb. 26, when a legitimate East contender outscored them 36-13, and this one where they were on the wrong side of a 22-2 run and D’Angelo Russell’s 18 points nearly outdid them alone.
“It’s tough to win four straight and then lose three straight,” Marcus Morris told reporters. “I’d be lying if I said we knew our identity.”
— NBA (@NBA) February 8, 2019
Feb. 7, 2019: The Lakers
Kinda feel like you remember this one, where a 6-point lead with 84 seconds to go wasn’t enough thanks to a good old “Getting Rondo’d.”
Feb. 9, 2019: The Clippers
This one, however, sure did have a way of making the prior one feel quaint, what with the home team being outscored by 39 points in the final 29 minutes and 16 in the final 12.
“It’s just not fun. It’s not fun,” Morris told reporters, all of four days after Boston had won 10 of 11. “We’re not competing at a high level. Even though we’re winning, it’s not fun.”
Feb. 23. 2019: ‘Sometimes, you get humbled in this league.’
“I still don’t see anybody beating us in seven games,” Irving proclaimed in the gloaming after Boston, against a team it beat by a combined 85 points in two prior meetings, watched Chicago shoot better than 53 percent and hold the Celtics without an offensive rebound for the entire first half. It was a marked difference from two days prior, when they lost by just one at presumed No. 1 East seed Milwaukee.
More telling was Al Horford’s quote above. Or what Marcus Smart had to say: The team’s effort was “embarrassing.”
“Our toughness. Our will to fight. Our will to do everything,” Smart continued. “It’s just like, we don’t got the will to do it anymore.”
March 20, 2019: Et tu, Philadelphia?
To be fair, this one meant much more to the home 76ers, losers of 21 of 24 to the Celtics including the playoffs and desperate to make a statement. Up 15 in the second quarter and 6 with six minutes to play, though, Boston lost at least a sliver of its most fun trump cards, as well as just about formally kissed off anything better than the No. 4 seed.
— gary washburn (@GwashburnGlobe) March 24, 2019
March 23, 2019: Second sting
By now, Charlotte was going nowhere, at least relative to the Celtics. Unlike plenty of Boston’s blown double-digit leads, this one wasn’t a distant memory: Celtics 112, Charlotte 94, with just 8:21 to play. Still chasing the Pacers for home court, it would be the win to pull them even with nine games to play, including two head-to-head.
From 112-94, it was 30-5 Charlotte. Boston missed 17 of 19 shots while Walker scored 18 points himself. Just when it felt like things were in some semblance of control, they weren’t.
“It’s disappointing,” Brad Stevens told reporters. “I think you can look at it and say we all could have done better.”
Whatever these Celtics end up being, the first 78 games almost assure that’ll be a phrase etched on the headstone.