Chris Forsberg

Confessions of a Celtics roller-coaster rider after latest vexing loss

If you're following the Celtics' 2024 playoff journey, buckle up.

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Hi, I’m Chris. And I ride the Celtics' roller-coaster.

One day, the Celtics look invincible and we’re scouting routes for the duck boat parade. The next, I’m tearing out my hair over the team’s variable intensity level. It’s a vicious cycle.

It’s not that we expected the Celtics to go undefeated in these playoffs — though that would have been easier on the nerves of its fans. It’s the wild swings in focus that tend to infuriate us after unsightly losses.

In more rational moments, we could easily explain away Boston’s Game 2 loss to the Cleveland Cavaliers by noting how the Celtics missed 27 of their 35 3-point attempts (22.9 percent). A trash-time 3 by Oshae Brissett spared the Celtics from their worst 3-point shooting night of the entire season.  The Miami Heat already showed in Round 1 that there will be games where the opposing team wins the 3-point math, and that alone might be too much for the Celtics to overcome.

But what was maddening about Thursday’s loss to the Cavaliers was the way the Celtics appeared to let their offensive struggles impact their defensive energy. Sometimes it feels like this team doesn’t want to roll up its sleeves when things don’t go as expected.

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The Cavaliers hadn’t won a playoff game on the road in these playoffs. They had averaged a meager 90.8 points per game away from home over their first four road playoff games. And yet the only parade in Boston on Friday was layup line the Celtics allowed, as the Cavaliers piled up 60 points in the paint in Game 2.

Do I believe Thursday’s dud is going to cost the Celtics this series? No. One of the most endearing things about this Boston team has been the way it responds to bumps in the road.

But the fact that the Celtics keep hitting the same potholes is a bit more concerning.

If Boston bounces back on the road in Cleveland and ultimately puts this series away in five games, then we can poke fun at people like me who overreact in the moment. But our concern isn’t the game itself; it's the bigger picture for a team that hasn’t been bashful about noting how Banner 18 is the only goal.

A couple reasons these losses tend to gnaw at us:

Home bitter home

The Celtics were dominant in the regular season, posting a 64-18 record that was 14 games better than the next closest team in the East. They were a ridiculous 37-4 at home. Their reward for their dominance was getting homecourt advantage for the duration of their postseason stay.

And they haven’t exactly made the most of it so far.

Boston is 3-2 at home to start these playoffs, their two Game 2 losses giving away home-court advantage in both series they’ve played. On Thursday night, fans who paid big bucks to be inside TD Garden were left stomping to the exits with five minutes to play as Joe Mazzulla emptied his bench with the game out of reach.

Ever since LeBron James and the Cavaliers eliminated rookie Jayson Tatum and the Celtics at home in Game 7 of the 2018 playoffs, Boston is 17-17 in home playoff games at TD Garden (ignoring the “home” bubble games in 2020). The Garden once overwhelmed opponents who had no chance here. Now, opponents are way too comfortable.

Celtics home playoff splits, franchise history
After more than seven decades of dominance, the Celtics have become a pedestrian home playoff team.

Boston watched the Warriors raise the Larry O’Brien Trophy here in 2022. The Heat celebrated a Game 7 win in last year’s Eastern Conference Finals here. The Heat and Cavaliers both bounced back from Game 1 thumpings to steal Game 2 here this season. 

All those home losses taxed the Celtics in past seasons and complicated their quest for elusive Banner 18. It might seem like a blip in the moment, but this stuff adds up.

Back in 2008, the Big Three-era Celtics hit unexpected turbulence to start their own playoff quest. What steadied them was their dominance inside TD Garden. Boston dominated games at home to survive early-round challenges then eventually found ways to thrive on the road en route to Banner 17.

Can this team win ugly?

It’s oversimplifying things to state that Boston’s success is tied only to 3-point shooting. But to start this postseason trek, looking at the math on triples is the easiest way to judge whether the Celtics won by 20+, or lost by double figures. There hasn’t been any in-between.

The Celtics overhauled their roster last summer with the goal of being able to beat teams in different ways. That plan got a little more complicated when Kristaps Porzingis suffered a calf injury in Game 4 of Round 1.

The Celtics, for all their offensive firepower and their record-breaking offensive rating this season, have to be more willing to roll up their sleeves on the defensive end and make that their calling card in the postseason. Can they grind when opponents take away Plan A? Can they dig in and win gritty when the offense is struggling?

You start thinking about potential future opponents on this playoff journey and the Celtics cannot simply subsist on shot-making.

We appreciate Jaylen Brown acknowledging that Boston’s Game 2 effort was “unacceptable.” We’d prefer both him and fellow superstar Tatum did something to get the team on track in the moment. Game 2 against Cleveland was tied at halftime and it felt like the Celtics simply needed a jolt of intensity and focus to take control in the second half. Instead, it was the Cavaliers cranking to another gear as the Celtics stayed stuck in the mud.

A team like Minnesota is trying to smother its opponents and hound them into submission. The Knicks seem to bring relentless energy despite Tom Thibodeau’s penchant for leaning heavily on his core players. The Celtics sometimes feel like the kid reaching for the reset button on the Nintendo when things get rough early.

Again, Boston’s response to losses has routinely been excellent. The Celtics' ability to put these sort of missteps in the rearview mirror and bring the necessary energy next game is encouraging.

It would help if they could figure out how to change their mindset on the fly. Because it sometimes feels like this team is playing with fire.

Back in 2022, they were running on fumes in the Finals after having to grind their way there. In 2023, they put themselves in a position where Tatum turned his ankle early in Game 7 of the East Finals and that series slips away on the Garden floor.

Losses are inevitable. But the Celtics shouldn’t get outmuscled and outhustled, particularly on their home turf. They're held to an irrationally high standard, but only because they’ve proven they can play at that level. 

It’s time for the Celtics to show again that moments like Thursday night are just small blips on the 2023-24 radar. 

This roller-coaster isn’t for the faint at heart. But it’s worth the twists and turns if it delivers the Celtics were they yearn to go.

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