All-Star weekend turned all of us into detectives. We pored over everything Anthony Davis said (Boston was never not on his list!). We monitored Kyrie Irving’s every move (he’s walking off at halftime with AD! He’s the only one sticking around for Kevin Durant’s MVP presentation!) All while we screamed, “What does it all mean!?”
Here’s the big takeaway from this vantage point: We’ve become so consumed about what the future holds for the Celtics that we’re ignoring what’s in plain sight.
The Celtics' 2018-19 season certainly hasn’t gone to plan. Still, Boston has been one of the better teams in the NBA since late November. The team closed out the pre-All-Star portion of its schedule with a pair of quality wins, including a Kyrie-less win over a Philadelphia team it could likely see again in the postseason.
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And yet all the focus seems to be on what might happen in July.
Listen, we get it. The possibility of Boston adding a bonafide top-5 NBA talent this summer is undeniably tantalizing. But sometimes it simply feels like, because of Boston’s rocky season, we’ve lost sight of what’s still possible this season, all while daydreaming of what’s ahead.
Maybe more importantly: How the next three months play out could be vital in how exactly the future of this franchise looks. The next 24 games, and what follows in the postseason, might ultimately dictate the direction that these Celtics take.
Which is to say that, while it’s undeniably more fun to dream of what might be, let’s remember to savor the experience. Celtics coach Brad Stevens so frequently reminds his player of that message because it’s so easy to get distracted from the next game, the next quarter, the next play.
The final two months of the regular season should be fascinating. The Celtics will emerge from the All-Star break tied for the fourth spot in the Eastern Conference with the Philadelphia 76ers, and a three-team race for spots 3-5 looms. Boston holds the head-to-head tie-breaker over Philadelphia, having won the first three meetings of the season, but Indiana, in the aftermath of Victor Oladipo’s season-ending injury, has lingered in the hunt for a premium position as well.
Consider this: ESPN’s Basketball Power Index has the three teams separated by less than a single game in win projections, with current win projections of Boston at 52.6, Indiana at 52, and Philadelphia at 51.8. Which means every single game the rest of the way matters, particularly for a Boston team with a propensity for stumbling against inferior competition (see: home losses to the Knicks, Suns, Magic, Lakers, Clippers).
Fortunately for Boston, they have one of the toughest remaining schedules (that’s odd to type). It’s a slate that includes trips to play Eastern Conference frontrunners Toronto and Milwaukee before the end of the month.
On the heels of Boston’s quality win in Philadelphia, we’ll get an even better idea of where this team stands in relation to the East’s best. Both the Bucks (adding Nikola Mirotic) and Raptors (adding Marc Gasol) beefed up at the trade deadline, while Boston was forced to sit on its hands to keep assets for the potential Davis pursuit this summer. The Celtics did so, though, confident that they had room to grow as a team and the recent returns from players like Gordon Hayward and Jaylen Brown confirm that possibility.
In fact, that might just top the watch list for these post-break Celtics: Can Boston play its best basketball when everyone is healthy? The Celtics should have Irving back on Thursday night in Milwaukee and, while the “Is Boston better without Kyrie?” questions were rather obnoxious, it is fair to wonder if the Celtics are capable of going to another level if they can get all their players healthy and playing to their potential in concert. That hasn’t happened this season but with Hayward coming off an encouraging three-game stretch and Boston’s backups seemingly started to embrace those roles, it will be fascinating to see if Stevens can harness it all.
If he does, the Celtics might just look like the championship-caliber contender we all expected them to be. If the struggles persist, it will only put a bigger spotlight on this team’s inability to get everybody on the same page at the same time.
There are intriguing dates throughout March, including a Sunday afternoon showdown with the Rockets and a trip to play the Warriors two days later as part of a long West Coast trip. A three-game homestand later in the month culminates with old friend Isaiah Thomas returning to TD Garden with the Denver Nuggets, where he’ll finally get his tribute video, some 22 months after he last played a game in green. Two of Boston’s final seven games are against the Pacers, which could determine exactly which way the seedings tip.
So much of what this team accomplishes the rest of the way could dictate exactly how the summer plays out. If Boston stumbles its way to the finish line, settles for the fifth seed, and bows early in the playoffs, is the team more likely to push hard to add Davis this summer? If the Celtics rally together and make a playoff push to the NBA Finals, does that make the team more willing to hang onto their young talent instead of paying a steep price to add a more proven piece?
Ultimately, no amount of Irving hobnobbing with elite NBA talent is about to change whether Davis lands in Boston. That hinges more on whether Boston is willing to put Jayson Tatum in a deal, or whether a team such as the Knicks can get some lottery luck and earn a chip that allows them to get in the bidding. It doesn’t really matter whether Boston is on Davis’ list of preferred destinations. The Pelicans will make the move that’s best for the future of their franchise and Boston’s job of selling Davis on a future here begins the moment he’s actually wearing a green jersey.
Remember, too, that much of convincing Irving to stick to his word about re-signing here could hinge on Boston’s postseason success, and this team showing that it offers the best chance at chasing his title goals moving forward.
Yes, July is going to be fun. But it's time to savor the journey there.
Take a step back and this Celtics season has been fascinating. The slow start. The recent surge. All the little bouts of drama in between. These Celtics haven’t been very good at powering through adversity and they can’t let small stretches of poor performance snowball as they have at times this season.
Irving has to continue to grow as a leader. Gordon Hayward has to continue to be more aggressive. Tatum, Brown, and Terry Rozier have to embrace their different roles while understanding that their biggest reward will come with the playoff success of the Celtics as a whole. Al Horford, Marcus Smart and Marcus Morris will need to be playing at a high level when the playoffs roll around.
No one knows what the summer will bring. Few could have predicted two years ago when the Celtics took a conference finalist and strapped TNT to it, overhauling the roster even before the jaw-dropping trade that delivered Irving in late August. Half the NBA is going to be a free agent this summer and it’s impossible to even guess how it will all sort out.
It’s fun to think about but the product on the court right now deserves your attention, too. This team hasn’t always been fun to watch but that will only make the season more remarkable if they can put everything together when it matters most.
Savor the journey. The summer isn’t going anywhere. And we shouldn’t be in any hurry to fast forward through the next three months.
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