Two weeks ago, before his Boston Celtics defeated the New York Knicks for their fifth straight win during a stretch in which Boston posted 14 straight home victories, Celtics coach Brad Stevens was asked if he thought his team had a chance to catch the second-seeded Toronto Raptors.
"Hey, we’re four games away from ninth [place]," Stevens said, downplaying any thoughts of a surge. Reporters laughed because, as it turned out, Boston actually owned a six-game buffer over the first spot outside the Eastern Conference playoff picture and, given that Boston projected with a 99.9 percent chance at making the playoffs, the idea that Stevens would worry about a slide seemed a bit preposterous.
On Friday night, the Celtics dropped their fifth game in six tries. Looking uncertain and lacking the swagger that oozed during the team's hot streak, Boston dropped a 105-91 decision to a Raptors team that it now trails by 8.5 games in the standings.
The Celtics, who held a comfy lead on the third seed two weeks ago, have slipped all the way to No. 6 in the East, a half-game behind both the Charlotte Hornets and Miami Heat and a game back of the Atlanta Hawks. What Stevens said two weeks ago is actually true now: Boston is four games away from ninth place.
With only 13 games left in the regular season, it remains highly unlikely that the Celtics could fall much further, but given the injuries they're battling and the poor brand of basketball they are playing, it's understandable why some might be leery.
"We have to change something up," Celtics All-Star Isaiah Thomas told reporters in Toronto. "We got ourselves back into [Friday's] game, so we showed signs of playing like we know how, but a good team like the Raptors you can't just play one good quarter."
Make no mistake, the Celtics are in the midst of a brutally tough stretch, exacerbated by the fact that they lost Jae Crowder to a high ankle sprain last Friday, and one of the players expected to help fill his shoes, Jonas Jerebko, missed the past two games with a left foot injury.
Despite visiting a Raptors team that was playing its fourth game in five nights and was coming off an overtime win in Indiana on Thursday, the Celtics let Toronto build a big first-half lead, then didn't have enough energy themselves to sustain a second-half rally.
The Celtics miss Crowder more than most expected, in part because Boston's depth at the swingman spot is so thin. What's more, with Crowder starting the first 66 games of the season, it was not obvious just how much of a drop-off there would be without him.
And while Crowder might be Boston's best two-way player, the team really seems to miss his swagger and intensity. Boston simply looks tentative, and that may be why there's an uneasiness in playing with a makeshift rotation in which players called upon to fill larger roles have struggled to rise to the challenge.
Second-year guard Marcus Smart initially elevated to Crowder's starting small forward role, but with Smart stuck in a bit of a shooting slump, Stevens elected to shake things up a bit on Friday by moving Evan Turner into the starting lineup.
The Raptors -- and Luis Scola in particular -- shot so well at the start of the game that Boston's starters were minus-13 in six minutes of floor time. The Celtics, tied for the fourth-best defensive rating in the league while allowing 100.7 points per 100 possessions, saw their first unit allow an offensive rating of 210 over the first six minutes of the first quarter.
Boston made a couple of charges, most notably during a third quarter in which Isaiah Thomas got hot and rookie R.J. Hunter hit a late 3-pointer that helped Boston close within five. But Kyle Lowry (game-high 32 points) dominated the fourth quarter and broke things open enough that Stevens emptied the rest of his bench, which had already run 11 deep in the first half.
Stevens refuses to pin Boston's struggles on the absence of Crowder and Jerebko. He has acknowledged the team's difficult stretch of games, but won't accept any excuses.
"Everybody misses players, right?" Stevens told reporters in Toronto. "I think those guys are really good players. If they were here tonight, they would have played. But they weren't, so other players have to step up."
Here's the positive spin for Celtics fans: Boston's schedule eases up a bit moving forward with a visit to Philadelphia before a return home to host the Orlando Magic. Those are two games Boston should win. There is a chance that, by Tuesday morning, Boston could shuffle right back up into the third spot.
But then Toronto visits on Wednesday and the Celtics could use some positive energy because the schedule is still daunting with a season-long five-game road trip looming. There are winnable games out West against the likes of the Suns and Lakers, but the Clippers, Trail Blazers and Warriors are a bit more challenging.
Crowder said this week that he's progressing well and expressed optimism about his status. Stevens suggested Crowder would miss "two weeks minimum" when he went down last Friday and told reporters in Toronto Friday that any progress in Crowder's recovery hadn't been communicated to him. That suggests that Boston would have at least another week without him.
Regardless of who's available, the Celtics have to get back to playing with the confidence they had a couple of weeks ago, when players were certain the team could make a surge at Toronto. The No. 3 seed is still very much in play, and given the jumbled mess below the Raptors and Cavaliers, the Celtics need to focus on simply winning games and let the chips fall were they may.
And if the Celtics continue to stumble, well, here's the spin: The No. 6 seed is just as good as the No. 3 seed if the lower seed can pull off the upset. If Boston is hoping to dodge the currently top-seeded Cavaliers as long as possible, the Celtics want to avoid seed Nos. 4, 5 and 8. Then again, the Raptors might just catch Cleveland.
But Stevens probably would scoff if his players were worried about lining themselves up for the playoffs based on matchups. As Stevens has reaffirmed often, the Celtics haven't clinched a berth yet and, as unlikely as a free fall seems, his players clearly didn't expect to be in this position just 14 days ago, either.