With the eyes of the league fixed on the Celtics, the joy-deprived green touched down in Philadelphia on Monday afternoon. Boston's challenge on this brief trip: Pull itself out of a mini-meltdown without its best player in a national-TV matchup against a chief rival that is oozing joy since loading up at the trade deadline.
No pressure, Celts.
Ironically, this is when Boston tends to be at its best. While the burden of expectations has weighed heavy on this team for much of the 2018-19 season, there’s nothing this team has liked more than having its back against a wall. Remember, too, these Celtics have saved some of their finest ball for the East’s best.
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Still, this is a daunting task, particularly without Irving, who remained home with a right knee sprain suffered before Boston puked up a 28-point lead to the Los Angeles Clippers that prompted Marcus Morris to vent some frustrations about the way the team has approached the season. The Celtics are 7-2 without Irving this year but those seven wins came against six teams with a combined winning percentage of .426 (143-192) while the two losses were against two current playoff squads (Utah, Brooklyn).
While the Celtics have typically responded to their internal flare-ups well, it’s worth noting that, in the aftermath of Irving’s outburst in Orlando where he called out the younger players on the roster, Boston turned around and got throttled in Brooklyn (before dusting itself off in the aftermath and winning 10 of 11 before hitting the L.A. speed bumps).
It won’t be easy this time around. Philadelphia has no shortage of motivation, too. With Joel Embiid’s repeated “This is no rivalry” proclamations and Boston’s 9-2 record against Philadelphia since the start of last season — including the gentleman’s sweep in the East semis last year - the Sixers are no doubt eager to show off Tobias Harris and their new toys with a chance to suggest they’ve leveled the playing field with Boston.
Morris returns home to his native Philly having essentially called out his team’s commitment to hunting a title as a group. Boston almost has to come with energy with the eyes of the NBA watching to see whether they can bond together or if the cracks might grow.
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This is the sort of test that the Celtics routinely aced last season, particularly after Irving was lost for the season in March. In the face of adversity, Boston produced some of its most inspired basketball and it bred a confidence that only mushroomed in the postseason.
This game offers the Celtics the perfect opportunity to rinse the sour taste of the L.A. stumbles out of their mouths. It’s a chance to show what this team is capable of when they rally around each other. It’s the sort of game that can infuse some much-needed joy in the locker room.
As the Pacers continue to improbably surge in the aftermath of Victor Oladipo’s injury — maybe showing shades of last year’s Celtics team with their resiliency — the Celtics enter Tuesday’s showdown with a chance to pull even with the Sixers in the standings (and ensure they own the head-to-head tiebreaker against Philadelphia in the event the teams finish the season with matching records).
Stevens is understandably bullish on the Sixers. He closed his 10-minute chat with reporters Monday gushing about new-look Philadelphia and noted, "They were already good, by the way, like really good, really well coached, great system, great energy, now they’re pretty close to ridiculous.”
Celtics big man Al Horford said the team addressed Morris’ comments at Monday’s practice and believes the team is moving forward. Stevens said he’s fine with frustrated players voicing their frustrations so long as they are willing to put their name on it.
But what will be most telling is this team's on-court response. Stevens said he must hold his players more accountable when they’re not playing to the expected standard. The Celtics have put themselves in tough spots all season long and it’s still unclear if they have the mental toughness and resiliency that has been the calling card of Stevens’ teams in recent years.
Can this team still overcome adversity and quiet the naysayers rushing to suggest Boston is falling behind its East rivals? The game in Philadelphia provides the perfect opportunity for the Celtics to show their character and to find some joy.
We’ll find out a bit more about exactly what this team is made of and whether they have it in them to fight through all the bumps in this journey.
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