CHICAGO - Carding a mediocre 35-33 card with four games to go in the regular season, the Boston Celtics are likely to miss out on an outright playoffs berth and will have to navigate the play-in tournament to qualify for the post-season.
Having reached the Eastern Conference finals twice in the last four years, Celtic green, as playoff berths go, used to be good as cash. Money, automatic.
This season, though, Boston is gray and bleak.
And a little problematic.
What the heck is going on with this championship-studded franchise that had been stuck to title No. 17 since 2008 and hadn't made an NBA Finals appearance since 2010?
COVID-19 protocols and injuries are the ready, easy excuses. So are the after-effects of losing multiple players to defections and free agency, All-Stars such as Kyrie Irving, Gordon Hayward and Al Horford and key contributors like Terry Rozier, Enes Kanter and Daniel Theis.
The Celtics still have two young All-Stars in their prime - Jayson Tatum and Jaylen Brown - plus Kemba Walker and Marcus Smart in the lineup. And if you're struggling to fathom why a Big Four could look so forlorn and diminished, here are some answers.
Surrendering 111.3 points to the opposition per game, the Celtics are 19th in defensive rating while their offensive rating ranks only 10th at 114.2.
Last season they were fourth in both categories and they gave up four less points per outing.
The Celtics were here in Chicago last Saturday and I was horrified at the sight of watching them being trampled by the recently-sluggish (and may I say comatose?) Bulls, 121-99. And today, the Heat nipped them at home, 130-124.
That's 251 points allowed in two games. Too much blood in the water.
Has coach Brad Stevens, celebrated as one of the best young minds in the NBA, lost his locker room?
I'm not qualified to answer that question but the signs are troubling.
Their offense is stagnant like the pre-pandemic Manila traffic. They only produce 23.5 assists a contest, 23rd in the league. Their 3-point shooting (37.4 percent) is 11th and their field goal percentage is ranked 15th.
Too often, the Celtics look disinterested, uninspired.
So even if they somehow survive the play-in tournament, I don't see them surviving the first round of the playoffs against either the surging Philadelphia 76ers or the talent-laden Brooklyn Nets.
TEXAS TREAT. A few hours before Canelo Alvarez and Billy Joe Saunders entered the ring to unify the super-middleweight division on Sunday, a friend from California texted me to say he was tempted to put money on Saunders as a plus 450 underdog.
I thought Canelo, a minus 710 favorite, would win so I advised him to bet moderately and hope for the best. In combat sports, it only takes one big punch to turn the tables, so who knows, right?
Unfortunately, that one big punch was delivered by Canelo in the eighth round. And that proved to be the end as Saunders failed to answer the bell in the ninth round.
Up until the unceremonious finish, Saunders had done a remarkable job with distance management and head movement to avoid Canelo's relentless pursuit. He made good use of the 22-foot ring, jabbed a lot and even unleashed some fireworks in the middle rounds.
It wasn't enough. To paraphrase a line, the affable Brit ran but he couldn't hide.
Moral of the story?
Power is the greatest equalizer.
While it was a bit unsettling to watch a record crowd of 73,126 people congregate indoors, it was also promising in a way that it provided a glimpse of the normalcy that we haven't had in sports in a long, long time.