Kyrie Irving said he will not panic over the Boston Celtics’ uneven start to the 2018-19 season but, echoing what coach Brad Stevens has said multiple times this year, the All-Star point guard acknowledged that the Celtics are not as good as they believe they are.
"We needed this [poor road trip]. We’re not as good as we think we are,” Irving said after the Celtics’ erased a 21-point deficit but couldn’t cap their comeback while falling to the Portland Trail Blazers on Sunday night.
"That’s really what it comes down to. I said it at the beginning of the season: The excitement is just done. It’s real basketball now so it’s not just about the potential of the team or where we’ll be at the end of the season. It’s right now, and taking care of what presently is in front of us.
"We have challenges, we have barriers to get over as a team [and] individually. I’m going to be the most patient out of everyone. I’m not going to get too frazzled, too high or too low or anything like that. It’s a long season. I just understand that, for us to be special, we just have to get through some challenges.”
The Celtics turned in another first-half dud in Portland, digging themselves a monster hole that required a furious second-half surge. Unlike in Phoenix, where Boston stole its only win of the trip in overtime against a basement-dweller, Boston could not get over the hump in Portland.
As Stevens tried to absorb some of the blame for Boston’s inconsistent play, Irving called on Boston players to come together to figure out what’s ailing them during a 7-6 start to the new season.
"It takes a collective effort,” said Irving. "Until we all get on the same page with that, we’re gonna have lulls. … We could blame anybody in this locker room for one thing or another. But I think, collectively, our responsibility is just to collectively be on the right page and understand that.”
Irving tried to put into words the frustration that Boston has obvious talent but hasn’t been able to maximize it yet.
"When we come out here and play, it’s not anything different than other teams playing at a higher effort level than we are. And it comes to getting punched in the mouth a few times and then we come out and clearly we outmatch teams at dang near every position,” said Irving. "We have a lot of good players. And when I say, ‘outmatch,' I mean in terms of the groups we have out there we pretty much have a mismatch every time out there down the floor. So it comes with discipline. It comes with understanding. It comes with experience of just being on a team like this.
"We can’t have empty possessions, so whoever is shooting the shot, if they feel like it’s a great shot, then we all have to feel comfortable with it. I think it just comes with, just some experience. Looking at this locker room, me being in my eighth year and being a ‘veteran’ as well as Al [Horford] and [Aron] Baynes. Right now I think it would be nice if we had someone that was a 15-year vet, a 14-year vet that could kind of help us race along the regular season and understand it’s a long marathon rather than just a full-on sprint, when you want to play, when you want to do what you want to do.”
Boston’s funk comes as East rivals Toronto (12-1) and Milwaukee (10-3) have exploded out of the gates. Over the weekend, Philadelphia traded for Jimmy Butler, infusing a veteran talent onto a young roster and announcing that the 76ers would not be content to wait another year to be a legitimate contender.
The Celtics, the presumed favorite to sit atop the East after LeBron James took his talents to Hollywood, will endure a long cross-country flight back to Boston on Monday while trying to wrap their heads around why they can’t put together 48 minutes of consistent basketball.
"It’s all about attitude and effort,” said Irving. "That’s all it is.”
Stevens sounded hesitant to make wholesale changes given how his team has played well in spurts this season. And yet it’s hard not to wonder if the team has to do something to shake it from the early season funk.
For now, Stevens tried to put the blame on himself.
"You find your flow by making the next right play and playing hard, that’s it. When you’re in the game, you have a job to do on that possession, you do it,” said Stevens. “Then, if you do it really well over and over again, you have a good team. We’re not there yet and so that, to me, is well-coached teams get there; we’re not a well-coached team right now, that’s pretty obvious.”
Celtics players said that not one single player — or coach -- deserved blame for this funk.
“Everybody plays a part, but there’s only so much Brad can do,” said Jayson Tatum, who matched his career high with 27 points in Portland. "We have to go out there, hit shots, follow the game plan, and stop guys from scoring. There’s only so much he can do from the sideline.”
Could this road trip actually help the team, as Irving suggested?
“It probably will help us, the reality check that we might not be as good as everybody said we are at this moment, so we gotta get back home,” said Tatum. "I know everybody wants to go back home, and we need to figure some things out.”
And, if the Celtics need a kick in the pants, they’ve got guys in the locker room who are willing to do that as well.
"Marcus Smart was telling us after the game that there’s no more excuses,” said Horford. "We need to be better.”
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