Painting the Boston Celtics’ playoff picture


Illustration by Ryan Yau

The Boston Celtics are 54-24 this season, second best in the Eastern Conference behind the Milwaukee Bucks.

By Rumsha Siddiqui, Managing Editor

Early last month, the Boston Celtics had a rough stretch—they lost three straight games against the New York Knicks, Brooklyn Nets, and Cleveland Cavaliers, but head coach Joe Mazzulla didn’t express any concern when asked about the timing of this stretch. With four games remaining in the regular season, the Celtics still have the opportunity to take the No. 1 seed, though they aren’t fixated on seeding, as guard Derrick White insisted that it “doesn’t matter.”

The Celtics clinched an NBA playoff spot on March 18 and hold the second seed in the Eastern Conference under the No. 1-seeded Milwaukee Bucks. The first round of the playoffs will begin on April 15, and the defending-Eastern-Conference-champion Celtics plan to raise Banner No. 18 at the post-season’s end.

Indeed, the No. 1 seed doesn’t matter, and in fact, No. 2 may be the ideal spot for the Celtics. If they finish at No. 2, their Round 1 matchup will be the No. 7 winner of the play-in tournament—either the Nets, Toronto Raptors, or Chicago Bulls. The Nets are 1-3 against the Celtics this season, and the Raptors are 0-2. While the season series against the Bulls is tied at 2-2, it is unlikely that the Bulls will emerge from the play-in tournament. If the higher seeds advance in the first round, the Celtics will play the Philadelphia 76ers in Round 2. Boston is undefeated against Philadelphia this season and the C’s have won four straight playoff series against them.

Last season, the Celtics had an incredible second-half turnaround. In January 2022, they were the No. 10 seed with a 23-24 record. Former head coach Ime Udoka expressed frustrations with the team, and after a needed wake-up call that came in the form of an “embarrassing” loss to the Knicks, the C’s managed to pull off a dominant stretch through the remainder of the regular season, winning 28 of their remaining 35 games while boasting the league’s best offensive, defensive, and overall net rating.

Strong team chemistry is also important in maintaining a good basketball team. Right before the C’s turned last season around, forward Jaylen Brown tweeted “The energy is about to shift,” and indeed, the energy shifted. The dynamic of the 2022-23 C’s is different compared to last year’s squad, whose locker room dysfunction didn’t improve until their turnaround. The corrected team chemistry has continued to flourish in 2022-23.

“I felt like once we gelled together midway through last year, it kind of carried over,” veteran center Al Horford said in an interview with NBC Sports Boston. “When we got back this season, it’s kind of like buddies. You get back to school, everybody’s back hanging out together.”

So, how likely is it that the Celtics will make this year’s Finals?

After falling 4-2 to the Golden State Warriors last year, the C’s have, for the most part, played a dominant season despite having to adjust to new head coach Mazzulla. Luckily, this year’s squad isn’t inexperienced. The starting five have a combined 430 postseason appearances, including multiple showings in the Eastern Conference Finals.

Following their rough three-game stint, the C’s had three straight blowout victories despite missing a key player in star center Robert Williams III, who was out with a hamstring injury. Since Williams returned to the lineup, the Celtics beat the Sacramento Kings by 23, the Indiana Pacers by 25, and the San Antonio Spurs by 44. When Williams is on the court, the Celtics have a league-best 106.3 defensive rating. Keeping him healthy is vital for a deep playoff run. 

All-Star pair Jayson Tatum and Brown have arguably been the best duo in the NBA all season. On March 22, they each scored 25 points in the same game for the franchise record-breaking 66th time, surpassing the record set by former Celtics John Havlicek and Jo Jo White.

Thankfully, the Celtics don’t have to rely solely on the Jays as their bench has good depth—with White and guard Malcolm Brogdon at the forefront. White is averaging 12.6 points per game and had an incredible stretch last month in which he was recognized as Eastern Conference Player of the Week. Brogdon is averaging 14.6 points per game and is a contender for the Sixth Man of the Year Award. 

Despite several promising factors, the C’s have been injury-prone all season and have struggled with their defensive identity as of late. It’ll be a rocky road to the NBA Finals, but the Celtics should remain confident as they battle for Banner 18.