BOSTON — What are we supposed to make of the Celtics?
The preseason favorite to win the Eastern Conference, the C’s spent a good portion of the regular season spinning in fourth place. They lost games they had no business losing and inexplicably failed to compete in others. Universally hailed as the strongest team mentally in the league last season, this version of the C’s dissolved in a dizzying haze of passive aggressive finger-pointing, slumped shoulders, and cryptic quotes.
And yet. (Get used to this phrase because it will be employed frequently.)
The Celtics are playing their best basketball right as the postseason dawns on the Garden parquet this afternoon for their first-round series against the Pacers. Over the last month, they won gut-check games on the road and took care of business at home. That the C’s are even hosting a first-round series is testament to their strong play down the stretch, including a pair of wins over Indiana.
It didn’t hurt that the Pacers went into freefall during that same period, a disturbing finish to what had been a remarkable season filled with injury adversity. But this series is about the Celtics. This is when we will finally see what they’re made of, and find out once and for all how good they really are. Or not.
A few weeks ago, one could have considered this series an even contest. Now that the Celtics have given us yet another taste of their potential, losing would be a catastrophe. A fitting catastrophe for an uneven season with such high expectations, perhaps, but a catastrophe nevertheless.
“A lot of bullshit, a lot of the up-and-downs that just could have been handled better from a professional standpoint,” Kyrie Irving told reporters on Wednesday. “I’m talking about me personally, I’m not talking about our team.”
Kyrie’s been offering a bunch of mea culpas for what can euphemistically be described as his leadership style this season, but because this is Kyrie, it then took a weird turn.
“I had a lot of questions,” Irving continued. “A lot of things that weren’t being answered straight up about what it takes to be a great professional in this league and I think that the frame of that is just outdated, in terms of what you have to be every single day and it’s not that hard.”
No one illustrates this oddball Celtics’ season more than Kyrie. One of the league’s premier eccentrics, Irving had arguably the best season of his career while also throwing shade at his teammates whenever it suited his fancy.
Always provocative with the press, Kyrie got mad at the media for finding him interesting, which seemed curious. Even more curious, the C’s weren’t much good when he wasn’t on the court, except when he was in street clothes, where they were totally fine without him. Much like they were last season when they reached the conference finals while he recuperated from knee surgery.
Don’t worry if none of that makes any logical sense. Logic and sense went out the window last fall when the C’s struggled out of the gate. Young players who thrived without Irving and Gordon Hayward found themselves struggling to adjust to life as role players. Hayward went to the bench in a season-long quest to find himself and role players like Marcus Morris and Marcus Smart were suddenly cast as saviors.
Injuries weren’t as drastic as last season, but a lot of minor ailments became major headaches. Particularly when they involved Aron Baynes, their 20-minute-a-night big man/enforcer whose periodic absences revealed an alarming lack of toughness and cohesion.
Kyrie went merrily along, weaving and slithering through defenses while creating controversies when none were necessary. Like all teams, the Celtics marched to the beat of their leader, only Irving seemed to be playing a tempo that was his alone to understand.
Things came to a head in January following a weird series of soliloquies in which Kyrie blamed the young players for not living up to his standards, and then threw his pending free agency into doubt by suggesting he didn’t owe anybody anything. If this was his way of testing his teammates to see if they could manage internal drama, it backfired spectacularly. The team that used to be handle everything melted down amid a chorus of boos from the Garden faithful with even more inexcusable performances.
The Celtics fate lies not with Kyrie, but with Al Horford. The venerable big man took center stage last spring and delivered an all-time playoff performance that nearly took the undermanned Celtics all the way to the Finals. If Horford is right, and he’s looked very right indeed these last few months, then the Celtics will be dangerous.
Horford is the go-to solution for tough defensive matchups ranging from Giannis Antetokounmpo to Joel Embiid, and a serious problem for opponents who must track him out beyond the 3-point line. Throw in his excellent playmaking skills from the high post and his trusty old man game down low and Big Al will cause fits for opposing teams.
You can also make a case that Hayward is the other key to unlocking the C’s potential. After a frustrating comeback season reached its nadir following the All-Star break, Hayward suddenly rediscovered his bouncy game. He averaged an efficient 14-5-3 over his final 14 games, providing the Celtics with a much-needed playmaking option.
It was no coincidence that Boston looked as good as it has all season with the rejuvenated Hayward anchoring its second units. The C’s blew out Golden State with Hayward going off for 30 points. And he was vital in make-or-break road contests with the Heat and Pacers, which locked up home court in the first round.
Give this team a healthy Horford, a locked-in Kyrie, and this version of Hayward and there’s no telling how far they can go.
Because this is the Celtics of 2019, it wouldn’t be right to start the postseason that seamlessly. In a meaningless game against Orlando last Sunday, Marcus Smart suffered a partial avulsion of his left oblique abdominal muscle off of his iliac crest. What that means is he’ll be out for 4-6 weeks, the balance of the first two rounds at least, if not the entire Eastern Conference playoffs.
It’s a significant blow because Backcourt Draymond truly came into his own this season. His defensive acumen made him one of the league’s gnarliest defenders, and his 3-point shooting finally caught up with his confident stroke. Smart’s absence will be keenly felt throughout the playoffs, not only in the matchups, but with the loss of the unbounded energy he brings to the task.
Brown ultimately found his way by midseason, but the stakes couldn’t be bigger for Rozier who’s set to his restricted free agency this summer. Rozier is already brimming with optimism about his chance to put his regular season behind him and make amends in the postseason.
There is a path to redemption and it’s plainly obvious to everyone around the team. It starts by winning this series with the Pacers by any means necessary. It doesn’t matter if it’s ugly, given the opponent it probably won’t be pretty anyway. It may take longer than necessary, and there will likely be at least one confounding loss thrown into the mix because there’s always one looming around the corner with this team.
It may require six or even seven games, but regardless of how it’s done, the C’s need to win this series. From there they would go to Milwaukee, split a pair with the Bucks, and come home to a hero’s welcome. Catch fire at exactly the right time and all will be forgiven. We’ve seen it before with this franchise, 2010 to be exact, and the parallels are eerie enough to imagine them bound for a parallel path.
What are we supposed to make of the Celtics? We’re about to find out.
“I like to be free. I’ve got a great life… what am I doing? I’ve got a beautiful life. I’m gonna go back to that beautiful life. I’m looking forward to it. Somebody is going to have to tell my boss, because I know she’s (Jeannie Buss) going to be sick. But I knew I couldn’t face her face-to-face and tell her.”
Reaction: Totally normal organization.
“I’m very comfortable here and comfortable working with (Robert Pera) and really not worried about my situation at all.”
Reaction: Totally normal to send your GM out to talk to the press about next season and then fire him and your coach.
“I didn’t choose (the shirt), actually. It was hanging for me already when I was putting my clothes on.”
Reaction: Totally normal league.
Consumable NBA thoughts
Brief thoughts and predictions on the other first-round series. Note that predictions were made before the games tipped off on Saturday.
The Bucks got a break when they drew the banged-up Pistons in the first round. Considering the franchise hasn’t won a playoff series since the days of Ray Allen, Sam Cassell, Big Dog Robinson, and the other Ervin Johnson, that’s no small thing. Kudos to Detroit, and the underrated Ish Smith, for grinding out that last playoff berth, but this shouldn’t be close. Bucks in four.
The Raptors did not get a break with the Magic, who have been playing great defense for months and have the ultimate x-factor in high-scoring reserve Terrence Ross. The Raps should cruise, regardless, but when has anything ever been easy for them during the postseason? Raps in six, for old-times sake.
Considering the questionable health of Joel Embiid, Philly is in a bit of a jam after losing Game 1 decisively. All credit to Brooklyn who executed a perfect gameplan and looked like the smarter, more together team, on Saturday. The Sixers, meanwhile, displayed every bad trait they’ve accumulated throughout the season. This is the time when Jimmy Butler truly needs to shine. Sixers in six, but a grueling six.
There’s few things the Warriors enjoy more than beating the Clippers, who also happen to be the last Western Conference franchise to beat Golden State in the playoffs. That was back in the heady days of Lob City, which feels like an eternity ago. I still have no real idea of what to make of the Warriors, but this feels like an appropriate warmup test. Warriors in five.
The Nuggets need to win this round to validate their breakout season. Had they caught OKC or Utah, you’d be seeing a lot of upset picks. Enter the Spurs, who are smart and wily enough to take advantage of Denver’s inexperience, but lack the top-line talent to truly take advantage of the situation. Consider this series a graduate-level course in playoff basketball for the Nuggets. It will be difficult, but doable. Nuggets in seven.
The Blazers didn’t really want third place because that meant a date with the Thunder who won all four meetings this season. Seedings aside, it’s interesting to consider whether a Thunder victory would be an upset at all, considering they have a top-3 MVP candidate in Paul George and a recent winner in Russell Westbrook. Never bet against Dame Lillard is my unofficial motto, but it doesn’t look great for the Blazers. Thunder in six.
The Jazz have been one of the better teams in the league over the final month, going 13-3 behind an impenetrable defense and a revitalized Donovan Mitchell. The problem is that Houston has been even better during that stretch and the Rockets are a matchup nightmare for the Jazz. The 4-5 seeding actually works in Houston’s benefit. Better to get the Warriors earlier than later. First things first, however. Rockets in five, but I don’t feel right about it.