LOS ANGELES — Say this about the Celtics: They know when they’ve overstayed their welcome. Which is why Kyrie Irving chuckled as he declared it high time for the Celtics to get the hell out of Los Angeles after their shellacking Monday night at the hands of the Clippers.
But that Irving and his teammates could so easily move past an eyesore of a defensive effort — the Clippers gouging Boston to the tune of 140 points, the most points allowed in regulation by the Celtics in the Brad Stevens Era — spoke volumes about what the team accomplished out west overall. For all the uncertainty that existed before Boston’s cross-country travel nine days ago, the Celtics returned home Tuesday a lot more secure in who they are and what they can be.
The road trip wasn’t perfect and it’s easy to downplay the positives. Still, the Celtics produced a wire-to-wire win over the Warriors, stole a Kyrie-less thriller in Sacramento, and ground out an ugly victory over the LeBron-limited Lakers with the eyes of the NBA world watching. So, not even an end-of-the-trip speed bump could diminish the good vibes.
“We were successful on this road trip,” said Irving. "We came here to go 4-0. Obviously, we didn’t have that, we went 3-1, so now we go back home and finish business. We’ve gotta keep it moving.”
Considering where this team was before it boarded JetGreen two Sundays ago — a team with its wheels wobbling, all while Irving shrugged when asked if the team might find itself out west — the trip was earmarked a success the very moment players bounded off the plane oozing with positive energy.
Over the course of four games, the Celtics showed the sort of glimpses that reminded us of their potential. Make no mistake, there are strides to be made and this team will have to fight for even a tiny sliver of home-court advantage in the playoffs.
Still, the trip west gave this team something to cling to. It gave the team a blueprint to fall back on if they come untracked again. It relit the flickering light guiding Boston’s path to that switch this team must flip this postseason.
It’s why Marcus Smart was emphatic when asked if this team is in a different place after the trip. Answered Smart: "By far, by far."
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Celtics coach Brad Stevens has been quick to remind us that not everything about his team was fixed in one plane ride nor the three wins that followed. When asked to assess the trip, Stevens said, "I’ll tell you at the end of the year. Who knows? It’s not like we’d solved a big puzzle after three games. We’re just trying to get better.”
The Celtics can lean on the progress of Gordon Hayward. His hot-shooting and clutch winner in Sacramento left Stevens bristling at the lingering questions about Hayward’s health. It might have been a sign that Stevens no longer views that as a crutch that Hayward should be able to lean on. To be certain, the Celtics need Hayward to play with even more confidence, more force, more fearlessness to be the sort of player that gives them an honest-to-goodness chance to compete for a title. Still, the trip was a step forward for a player so crucial to whatever comes next for this team.
The Celtics can lean on the leadership of Irving. Not only did he spearhead the good vibes movement by forcing teammates to talk through their issues on the long flight to California, but Irving produced some truly inspired two-way basketball. Between his multiple charges taken and his offensive wizardry, particularly against the Lakers, it was a little window into Playoff Kyrie and the player he might have to routinely be in order to will this team along in the postseason.
The Celtics can lean on the continued emergence of Jaylen Brown, who has been one of their primary energy-givers in recent months. Even as his 3-point shot continues to defy him (31.9 percent for the season), Brown is making good things happen when he’s aggressive towards the basket. He’s probably earned the right to stay in a starter role but Stevens has stuck with Marcus Smart and Marcus Morris in the first five given Boston’s typical success in the first six minutes of games. Regardless of role, a focused Brown is a difference-maker for the Celtics.
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The Celtics can lean on Al Horford offering glimpses of Postseason Al, the muscle-flexing big man who ratchets up his play on both ends. Horford had the best net rating (plus-13) among rotation players on the trip with the offense surprisingly crisp when he was on the floor (a team-best offensive rating of 117.9, which was 2.8 points better than when Irving was on the court). Asked what he took away from the trip, Horford noted, "Just the way that we played, stayed together through ups and downs. Obviously, tonight didn’t go how we wanted, but I feel like we really played with purpose and we want to continue playing that same way...now that we’re going back home.”
There is much to work on. There is adversity to fight through. There are slumps to break out of. There are seedings to chase. But in a season that’s hardly gone to plan, the Celtics needed the trip out west to find a bit of their mojo.
When the story of the 2018-19 season is written, the JetGreen trek west might just be the turning point. Or it could be just another scene in a season full of dramatic moments. So much hinges on where the Celtics go from here.
The last nine days out west have given the Celtics an opportunity to salvage an uneven season. But there’s still much work to do on the homefront.
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