Boston Celtics

Do Celtics' late-season losses matter? What playoff history tells us

How many teams have 'flipped the switch' after coasting down the stretch?

NBC Universal, Inc.

Charles Barkley wasn't having it.

At halftime of the Celtics' eventual lopsided loss to the New York Knicks on Thursday -- their second straight defeat -- the Basketball Hall of Famer and NBA on TNT analyst blasted Boston's players for their less-than-inspired effort and offered a warning ahead of the postseason.

"If they’re gonna play like that, they shouldn’t play," Barkley said of the Celtics' stars. "… I know they’re gonna finish with the best record, but man, you just can’t turn it off and turn it on."

Barkley then brought up his 1992-93 Phoenix Suns, who "shut it down" over the final two weeks of the regular season with a comfortable lead atop the Western Conference and struggled to begin the playoffs, losing the first two games of their first-round series before rallying to win in five games. (They went on to lose to the Chicago Bulls in the NBA Finals.)

So, is Barkley right? Does coasting down the stretch come back to bite teams in the playoffs, or were his 1992-93 Suns an aberration?

A look at the last six postseasons reveals some interesting results.

The 2023 Denver Nuggets, for example, might reassure Celtics fans that there's no need to panic. They went 2-4 over their last six regular-season games, yet still finished as the No. 1 seed in the West and went on to win the NBA Finals.

The 2020 Los Angeles Lakers were even worse down the stretch -- 3-6 over their final nine games -- and emerged as NBA champions, while the 2018 Golden State Warriors lost six of their last 10 games before steamrolling through the playoffs to win their second consecutive title.

That's three teams in a six-year span that "struggled" to end the regular season before flipping the proverbial switch in the playoffs. So a couple losses in April aren't a big deal for Boston, right?

Well, there's also evidence to support Barkley's point. The 2022 Suns, for example, finished 64-18 but went 2-4 over their final six games while coasting to the No. 1 seed. The result? A second-round playoff loss to the Dallas Mavericks.

The 2018 Houston Rockets were similarly dominant -- 65-17 record, seven-game lead in the West -- but dropped three of their last six to end the regular season. They eventually fell to Golden State in seven games in the Western Conference Finals.

The upshot to all of this? Celtics fans shouldn't sweat this week's losses to the Milwaukee Bucks and Knicks, two highly-motivated teams battling for seeding in the Eastern Conference. There are plenty of examples of teams finding a new gear once the playoffs start.

But as the 2022 Suns, 2018 Rockets and Barkley's 1993 Suns can attest, "flipping a switch" isn't a given, and the Celtics can't afford to lose too much of their edge.

"Maybe we’ll get our s--- kicked again one more time to start the series, who knows?” Celtics big man Kristaps Porzingis said after Thursday's loss, as seen in the video above. “And then it’s a wake-up call for us.

"But most likely if I have to bet, we will show up at the level we need to show up. But it’s on us. I don’t think it’s a habit for us."

The Celtics have two regular-season games remaining against the lowly Charlotte Hornets and Washington Wizards, then will have a full week off as they await the results of the East play-in tournament. Then we'll find out which side of history they land.

Contact Us