The Celtics are victims of their own regular-season success

They outperformed their talent level in the regular season, but in the playoffs, that’s catching up to them.

The Celtics are victims of their own overachievement. The team that finished 53-29 this season probably should have fallen underneath that mark, and they certainly shouldn’t have been the Eastern Conference’s top seed.

It’s hard to fault them for that, but it’s now equally hard to absolve them from their 2-0 deficit to the Bulls. Statistics like this one — the Celtics are only the second top team to drop their first two games to a No. 8 ranked squad — don’t care whether Boston should be here or not. That the Celtics may be on the verge of becoming only the fourth No. 1 seed to lose in the first round since 2000 will live on beyond the actual realities of where Boston should be.

The truth is that the Celtics have been a wonderful regular season team, but one still built with massive flaws. Chicago is exposing them everywhere you look with an inspired effort this postseason we haven’t seen all season.

Boston hasn’t lost this series yet, of course; they’re only down two games. But they’ve rocked back on the heels and have both hands protecting their head, with all the metronoming away from them. Now they have to go play two games in Chicago with pressure mounting to win both.

Yes, Boston really is in trouble now.

Chicago Bulls v Boston Celtics - Game Two Photo by Maddie Meyer/Getty Images

The more you stare at Boston’s roster, the more the cracks seem obvious. They’re an incredibly solid team, with consistent role players galore and depth to go around. But their offense is solely built around the 5’9 Isaiah Thomas whose penetration and ball handling create shots for everyone else.

That’s it. It’s just Thomas. There’s no one else on the roster who can do that like Thomas can, and it’s no surprise how badly their offense craters when he’s not on the court. During the regular season, Boston went from a torrid 113.6 offensive rating when Thomas is playing to 99.0 when he’s off. That’s almost a 15-point difference.

Four other Celtics averaged double figures this season: Avery Bradley, Al Horford, Jae Crowder and Marcus Smart. Though Horford was the team’s major free agent signing, and he fits well as a cog in the machine, he hasn’t shown signs that he can create shots beyond the Celtics’ offensive structure. Bradley and Crowder play best when they’re attacking an off-balance defense, while Smart’s shooting still isn’t formidable enough to scare anyone. When combined with Thomas, who can bend and disrupt any defensive plan, they’re dangerous. Without him, they’re listless and reliant on the other side making mistakes.

Brad Stevens is the butt of all jokes when his playoff record is revealed. For his career, he is now 2-10, which gives him the worst record ever among coaches with at least 10 games coached. But that stat isn’t really fair, and we all know this isn’t his fault.

If anything, Stevens deserves blame for causing these oversized expectations. The Celtics’ pythagorean, or expected, record was 48-34, meaning the statistical formula used to calculate these numbers indicated Boston overachieved by five wins this season. That’s not a huge number, but it’s the different between the No. 1 seed and the No. 4.

If a No. 4 seed falls down two games to none in the first round, nobody cares nearly as much, after all.

These excuses only go so far. Boston still should be beating Chicago, who barely squeaked to a .500 record this year and has more often looked dysfunctional this season than not. But when the Bulls abuse the Celtics on the glass, and Jimmy Butler outshines the rest as the best player on the floor, it makes sense to think of this team as an overachieving regular-season squad that just happened walked backwards into a conference championship.

NBA: Playoffs-Chicago Bulls at Boston Celtics Winslow Townson-USA TODAY Sports

Even since jewelry heist mastermind Danny Ocean went into hiding as mild-mannered Celtics general manager Danny Ainge, he has been robbing teams blind. Thanks to that, Boston owns a pick swap with Brooklyn, who currently has the best odds at winning the NBA draft lottery.

The Celtics have assets, too, and plenty of them. If the pick swap isn’t enough, Boston also owns Brooklyn’s 2018 first rounder straight up, and their abundance of role players offers them several intriguing trade chips. They reportedly talked to Chicago and Indiana in February about Butler and Paul George, and both superstars could still be moving teams. There are a hundred different directions the Celtics could go, but rest assured they can still improve this team.

Boston isn’t done building their team, and that’s good, because they shouldn’t be. Even if the team does turn it around and beat Chicago, nobody is expecting a run much deeper than that. Whatever happens, the Celtics need to improve.

You can’t blame them for overachieving, but it’s perfectly alright to expect more.

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