BOSTON — The Boston Celtics’ 2018-19 season was never going to be judged based on what the team did in the regular season. When you get back two injured All-Stars from a team that was minutes away from a trip to the NBA Finals, then everything hinges on whether you were able to take the next step in that quest towards title contention.
Maybe that’s why, as the Celtics enter the fourth quarter of this miserable regular-season slog, the team has started to embrace Kyrie Irving’s recent decree that the only thing that matters now is the playoffs. Much of this team’s nauseating roller-coaster play will be forgotten if they break out of their general malaise when the games matter most.
The question, of course, is whether they can actually do that.
It would be easier to believe Irving’s suggestion that nobody in the Eastern Conference can beat Boston in a seven-game series if this team had consistently shown the hallmarks of a championship team during the regular season. They haven’t, and they’re unlikely to inspire much confidence regardless of how these final 20 games play out.
The postseason will provide the Etch-a-Sketch shake these Celtics so desperately need. Still, in going all in on the “just wait for the playoffs” narrative, Irving is putting pressure on himself and his teammates to put it all together on the biggest stage.
Make no mistake, the final 20 games matter. Not so much in terms of wins and losses, and hunting homecourt for Round 1 should be a secondary priority to simply figuring out the best lineups and rotations for the postseason. Boston has to identity the root of its middle-quarter woes and tighten up a defense that eroded mightily in February. The impending return of Aron Baynes will add a heaping of defensive intensity to reserve lineups but coach Brad Stevens ought to treat some upcoming games as a test kitchen for other tweaks that could spur more consistency.
Stevens tightened his Terry Rozier-less rotation against Portland but the lingering question is whether he could give inconsistent reserve units a jolt by small changes with the overall rotation. This isn’t an easy decision, especially because Boston’s most common 5-man unit this season (Irving, Al Horford, Jayson Tatum, Marcus Smart, and Marcus Morris) has been one of the most efficient high-volume groups in the league this season with a net rating of plus-9.2 in 407 minutes together.
The numbers are a bit more concerning in recent weeks. In eight games together in February, Boston’s starters have a minus-4.1 net rating over 123 minutes. Does Stevens ride it out hoping that offensive slumps for Smart and Morris have slowed the group, or does he consider reverting back to lineups that Boston planned to lean heavier on earlier in the year?
We found it interesting that Stevens’ early subs in Wednesday’s loss to Portland featured inserting Jaylen Brown and Gordon Hayward for Smart and Morris. That reunited Boston’s starting 5 from the beginning of the season — call them the Newport 5 or Erotic City or whatever you desire. That group had all sorts of issues to start the year and Stevens was beyond justified in shaking up that group. But with Brown playing quality ball for a prolonged stretch, it’s interesting to wonder the trickle down effect on Boston’s entire rotation if they went back to that original group.
In a measly 3-minute stint, the original starting 5 had a plus-20.8 net rating against Portland. Not much can be gleamed from that small sample but nevertheless it’s interesting to see that 5-man combo together.
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Ultimately, the Celtics need more effort regardless of what pairings are on the court. They need to be better when adversity hits. The postseason will afford an opportunity to right a lot of wrongs but this team can’t expect that the playoffs will deliver a magic elixir that cures the Celtics of all bad habits.
On one hand, Irving acknowledged as much in his postgame comments on Wednesday when he detailed the daunting nature of what’s ahead.
"We have such a unique group this year where they made an unbelievable run last year and just the experience that they had, but it takes a lot more than what they accomplished last year as well,” said Irving. “Us, as a team, we need to win road games, we need to compete at a very high level whether at home or on the road. It takes a very, very high level and IQ of basketball to play against great teams in this league and to win a championship or even compete for one.”
And yet Irving also displayed brash confidence that Boston’s regular-season woes won’t matter.
"I've been part of two organizations. One, where I was in Cleveland, and in 2017 down the stretch we lost a lot of games in a row and ended up sweeping the whole Eastern Conference,” said Irving. "I don't think anybody in the Eastern Conference could really compete with us at a high level when we're playing the way we're supposed to be playing.”
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Irving has to remember that the Cavaliers had one rather obvious thing in their favor that year: LeBron James and his Eastern Conference domination. Or maybe Irving is suggesting that he believes he can play to that sort of level when the playoffs arrive. It’s easy to forget in his absence last season but Playoff Kyrie has typically been a special sight.
There’s nothing the Celtics can do to fix all that’s gone wrong this season. They’ve made it exponentially more difficult to reach their goals with the way they’ve played and their inability to handle adversity.
The fact that some are finding silver linings in the team’s more inspired play against Portland tells you the state of this current team. There’s plenty for them to work on and figure out over the final 20 games. But the success of that stretch doesn’t matter. As Horford embraced on Wednesday: This team is better off figuring things out and being a 5-seed then being an inconsistent mess and earning the 3.
How this team is remembered and maybe how this team proceeds deeper into the future hinges on the playoffs. That’s why Irving is all in on the postseason.
The 2019 playoffs will tell the story of this team.
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