When the Boston Celtics opened the month of February by winning four of their first five games, feasting on the league's cellar dwellers, there were some Boston fans that squirmed watching the team climb in the standings. The team's post-All-Star break trip out west helped put those observers at ease.
Boston wrapped up a winless four-game trek out west on Monday with a 110-98 loss to the Utah Jazz. The Celtics are now 0-13 on the road against the Western Conference, which is a big reason why they now own the fourth-worst record in the NBA.
According to Hollinger Playoff Odds formula, Boston currently owns a mere 1.4 percent chance at a playoff berth. While Boston players have clung to the hope that a playoff charge remains possible, the Celtics find themselves 8 ½ games out of the last postseason spot in the East with three teams in front of them in that quest.
ESPN.com NBA Standings
The logjam at the bottom of the league standings.The challenge for first-year coach Brad Stevens is keeping his players engaged on a nightly basis even when that playoff carrot is not there for motivation. The Celtics return home this week, but the schedule does not ease up and Boston players must soon embrace the idea of getting better each night, even if the losses continue to mount.
Of Boston's next 16 games through the end of March, 13 are against currently playoff-bound opponents. The other three include a Detroit team trying to fight its way into a playoff spot in the East, a trip to New Orleans (remember Boston hasn't won on the road against the West), and a visit from the Knicks.
The question over Boston's final 24 games becomes, where will the team finish among the lottery-bound teams? There's a cluster of five squads -- Celtics, Lakers, Jazz, Knicks, and Kings -- all within 2 ½ games of each other. Boston was ahead of two of those teams (Lakers, Kings) coming out of the All-Star break, but head-to-head losses saw the Celtics drop a couple spots on the ladder.
It seems unlikely that anyone is catching Milwaukee or Philadelphia. The Bucks (11-45) own a 3 ½ game cushion over the 76ers (15-42), even after Milwaukee posted a 130-110 win over Philadelphia, which has now lost 11 straight after stripping its roster at the trade deadline. It's almost certainly a two-team race for the most ping-pong balls.
But Boston is now within two games of Orlando, the team with the third-worst record in basketball. Two of the Magic's next four games come against the 76ers, which could force the Magic to climb up a bit. Of Orlando's 24 remaining games, only 15 are against current playoff teams.
What's the difference between the third- and fourth-worst record in the league? About a 4 percent chance of landing the top pick and a little less than 10 percent chance of landing a top 3 spot. In a draft that many believe is loaded up top, there's a great motivation to land in the the top 3.
The Celtics do not fear winning, as that little burst of victories at the start of the month confirmed. Stevens and the front office see a great value in young players learning how to win together, believing it can help in future seasons.
But, if we're being honest, losing isn't the worst thing for a transitioning team either. The Celtics want to get healthy, they want to play more consistent basketball (particularly on the defensive end). But, fair or not, the focus over the final two months of the season will also be the jockeying at the bottom of the league standings.