Can Celtics continue trend of holding their own against NBA elite in playoff time?

Forsberg: Will these Celtics be locked down when it matters most? originally appeared on NBC Sports Boston

The Boston Celtics produced some of their best basketball players this season against elite competition. That should be an encouraging sign for their playoff chances, and yet it only makes their regular-season drops in intensity against underdog teams even crazier.

An Easter basket full of losses against sub-.500 teams like the Rockets and Magic will almost certainly put the Celtics second in the Eastern Conference. Not having a home court in a potential showdown with the Milwaukee Bucks adds a layer of difficulty to return to the championship stage.

The Celtics can shrug off losses like Tuesday night’s undermanned Wizards, but they don’t give you a better feeling when it comes to their chances of securing when it really counts. Just as it looked like the Celtics were about to start, they fumbled away much of the good spirit that had been built during a dominant three-game winning streak.

Forsberg: Celtics could pay the price for not showing up against bad teams

The team will stick to the way they played against the best teams. The Celtics are 15-7 against the nine other teams in the NBA’s top 10 by point difference, according to Cleaning the Glass data. A win against Milwaukee Thursday night would give Boston the best record in the NBA against these elite teams.

Additionally, Boston owns the best offensive rating against these top 10 teams at 119.1. And no other team is within two points (runner-up: Philadelphia, 117).

It’s pretty crazy that Boston’s winning percentage against the top 10 teams in points difference (.681) is almost identical to his mark against the bottom 10 (.689). The Celtics were supposed to dominate the lottery-tied teams but have brought varying intensities on those nights. Ten teams have better win odds than the bottom 10 teams, including Eastern rivals like Cleveland (.815), Milwaukee (.759), and Philadelphia (.750).

Play to your competition

Celtics win percentage vs top 10 teams (by point difference)


Celtics win percentage vs bottom 10 teams (by point difference)




So the question becomes, do you trust the Celtics to settle in when the playoffs arrive? They’ve proven they can compete with the NBA elite, but can they bring the necessary focus to the entirety of a potential two-month playoff grind?

If you’re suspicious, that’s understandable. After shelling out the lottery-bound Spurs on Sunday Malcolm Brogdon explained that the Celtics shot after the No. 1. Forty-eight hours later, Boston sleepwalked to a loss against a Wizards team missing two of their best players.

The Celtics are unlikely to change the minds of the skeptics in the final six games of the season. The seeding for the East’s top rosters could be complete after Thursday’s visit to Milwaukee, a game that has already lost some steam as the Bucks now hold a three-game lead over Boston at the top of the East. The Celtics have just an 8.8 percent chance of landing the No. 1 based on Basketball Reference’s daily simulations and it would really be necessary to take off the wheels of the bucks to make any kind of kick.

Instead, the Celtics will likely prioritize recovery in the final five games of the season while clinging to hope that their full roster will fuel their playoff quest.

But Boston needs to find a way to be laser-focused in the postseason. When engaged, this team has proven their championship level. When the Celtics are frustrated or come out expecting a win, they’re easy to beat.

The only way to prove all those crazy losses were in the regular season just “one of these nights” is to bring it every night in the off-season.

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