Forsberg: Celtics could pay price for not showing up vs. bad teams

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Let’s start with the good news: The Boston Celtics will not have to play the Orlando Magic, Houston Rockets, and -- almost certainly -- the Washington Wizards in the 2023 playoffs.

However, Boston's inability to sustain its focus and intensity against inferior competition ultimately will complicate team’s path in a quest to get back to a championship stage.

The Celtics, overflowing with positive vibes, spilled them all over the Capital Beltway while stumbling to an improbable 19-point loss against the shorthanded Wizards on Tuesday night in D.C.

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Forty-eight hours after Malcolm Brogdon declared the Celtics were very much still pursuing the No. 1 seed, Boston sleepwalked its way through a loss that all but guarantees they will settle for the No. 2 seed in the Eastern Conference.

Thursday night was supposed to be a late-season showdown between maybe the two best teams in basketball when the Celtics visit the East-leading Bucks. Instead, Milwaukee could own a three-game lead heading into that game and might be tempted to downshift. The only preview the Celtics will get is where they will have to travel for a potential Game 7 of the East finals. 

Sitting three games behind the Bucks in the loss column, Boston’s odds at the No. 1 seed plummeted to 13.2 percent based on Basketball Reference’s daily simulations. The Celtics have an 83.8 percent chance at the No. 2 seed and a minimal 2.9 percent chance of slipping to the No. 3 seed. 

With a win Wednesday night in Indiana, the Bucks would have a three-game lead with six games to play. They could reasonably downshift before Thursday’s visit and still cruise to the No. 1 seed. The winner of the Boston-Milwaukee matchup will hold the head-to-head tiebreaker, having split the season series to this point. Alas, Boston would still have to make up at least one more game -- and more likely two -- over its final five to steal the top spot.

The Sixers have a daunting schedule to close the regular season, which suggests they are unlikely to make a surge at Boston. A Cavaliers loss on Tuesday night has strengthened the chances that the Sixers will at least hold onto the No. 3 seed. A Boston-Philly matchup would loom in Round 2 if higher seeds prevail.

The Celtics continue to operate with variable intensity. After a couple of speed bumps on their most recent West Coast trip -- including maddening losses to the Rockets and Jazz -- Boston put together one of its most encouraging stretches of the season with three straight dominant wins.

But the defense disappeared on Tuesday night. Even more frustrating, head coach Joe Mazzulla and Jayson Tatum shrugged off the loss. Just another off night for a team in a season filled with head-shaking defeats against poor competition.

Brogdon admitted Sunday that the Celtics were stunned to be overtaken by Milwaukee after the Bucks surged in the new calendar year. Boston will look back and lament so many missed opportunities, particularly against bad teams.

The Celtics have rarely brought a consistent energy against less-talented opponents. The same team that routinely reserves its best basketball for legitimate title contenders often seems flummoxed by teams that either lack star power or were missing their top talent against Boston.

Maybe it won’t matter in the postseason. Maybe the intensity of those games will have the Celtics laser-focused throughout their run. Maybe home court won’t matter in the East finals.

But you’d feel a lot better about the team’s chances if they hadn’t put themselves in this avoidable situation.

A year ago, the Celtics steamrolled their way into the playoffs. They dominated opponents, and even as some suggested they should avoid the No. 2 seed, former coach Ime Udoka declared that Boston wasn’t a track team and wasn’t running from anybody. The Celtics dripped swagger entering the playoffs. 

And yet the Celtics still needed the benefit of home court to outlast the Bucks in Game 7 of the East semifinals. Grant Williams made seven 3-pointers with the benefit of a friendly Garden environment to punch Boston’s ticket forward.

Settling for the No. 2 seed would pit the Celtics against the winner of the No. 7 vs. No. 8 play-in matchup, which currently projects as Heat vs. Hawks. Miami was Boston’s opponent in the East finals a year ago, while the Hawks were in the East finals just two seasons ago. Brooklyn, Toronto, or Chicago also could sneak into spots 7-8 based on the final two weeks of the regular season.

The Celtics will be favored in any of those matchups. But the team’s consistent woes against lesser foes won’t make you feel great about any of those pairings.

Rest might become the priority over the final two weeks of regular-season play. The Celtics are near full health -- which only makes Tuesday’s letdown all the more maddening -- and must keep it that way.

Boston also could benefit from playing more inspired ball over the final handful of games. Because Tuesday was one of the most discouraging games in a season filled with head-slappers.

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