One of the (many) things about Kyrie Irving that I’ve found fascinating during his Boston tenure is that, most nights after losses, he seems impossibly composed by the time he steps in front of the microphones. Do not misinterpret: Losses sting Irving but he typically has a unique ability to see the bigger picture rather than get swept up in the moment.
Saturday’s loss in Orlando was an exception. But we’ll get to that in a moment.
I’d go so far as to say there have been times earlier in the year, even with Boston at full throttle on this nauseating seesaw, where Irving seemed to genuinely enjoy the peaks and valleys, maybe recognizing that no worthwhile season passes without a blend of triumph and adversity. Irving seems to savor the journey more than most.
But even Irving seemed to reach a breaking point last week in the so-called happiest place on Earth.
Irving’s postgame shooting session in Miami hinted at a player with a lot on his mind, though it should be noted that he returned from the “therapeutic” session in a notably chipper mood, playfully joking with reporters when the lights went out during his interview. Maybe we should have known something was awry in Orlando when Irving was as demonstrative as we’ve seen him after picking up a technical foul late in the third quarter.
His emotions got the best of him on the court again when he seethed about Boston’s final play. He stewed at his locker stall and eventually his frustration poured out during his postgame media session.
Maybe Irving needed a day Monday to rest both his body and mind. But he’s far from the only one on the Celtics that's let his emotions show amid a frustrating stretch. Marcus Morris and Jaylen Brown had their little flareup in Miami, Brad Stevens had the maddest of Mad Brad timeouts at the start of the game in Brooklyn, and Brown seemed to be sending a little bit of flak back at Irving when he said the team’s issues run, "not from the bottom to the top, but from the top to the bottom."
All of which delivers these red-faced Celtics to Wednesday night’s showdown with the Eastern Conference-leading Toronto Raptors. The Celtics sit 7 games back and this shouldn’t be hyped as some sort of battle for East supremacy. No, this is simply a test of the Celtics’ mental toughness.
How will the Celtics respond to their latest and maybe most pronounced bout with adversity?
We know the Celtics have the talent to be a true contender. They’ve proven that by beating all four teams sitting ahead of them in the East standings. They are one of a small handful of teams in the NBA that sits in the top 10 for both offensive and defensive rating, possessing the statistical profile of a champion. ESPN’s Basketball Power Index, one of the best predictive measures in recent season, has Boston tied with the Golden State for the second best mark in the league (ahead of Toronto but behind Milwaukee).
Alas, none of those measures mean anything if the Celtics don’t show they have the mental grit needed to truly contend.
Which is why, as frustrations boil over during this three-game losing streak, we keep coming back to something Stevens has repeated a few times in recent weeks, essentially wondering out loud if his team has the toughness that his teams so routinely displayed in recent seasons.
"I thought one of our great strengths in the last few years was our ability to move on,” Stevens said earlier this month. "I’m not sure that we were as good at that early in the season as we needed to be. This season is long, it’s hard, there’s a lot of ups and downs. You gotta be able to move on from both.”
A win Wednesday night will not solve any of Boston’s underlying issues. But it might tell us a bit about what this team is made of. As every soundbite out of the Celtics’ locker room is scrutinized, as pundits ponder if there’s a divide between the young and old, and as players of all ages find themselves under the microscope for underperformance, can the Celtics dust themselves off and play like the team they expected to be?
This is not to suggest that Wednesday’s game is some sort of make or break moment. The Celtics need to prove it and prove it consistently. But as the rest of the NBA looks to see if the wheels might come off for these Celtics, we’ll find out whether they can get past individual frustrations for the greater good of the team.
Does this team want to be great? Can it handle the growing burden of expectations? That’s sort of the gauntlet that Irving has repeatedly thrown down and we’re still waiting for a definitive answer.
A clear-minded Irving could help Boston start to answer those questions in the affirmative. So might the return of Aron Baynes, if the bruising big man can get back on the court after missing less than four weeks with a fractured hand. Boston’s defensive rating has regressed in Baynes’ absence with the team slipping to fifth in the NBA while allowing 104.6 points per 100 possessions. That number spiked to 108.7 in the 13 games since Baynes’ injury.
Baynes will bring a toughness that’s been desperately missing in recent weeks. But the bigger question mark is mental toughness. Former Celtics coach Doc Rivers used to say, “You gotta get past mad.” Frustrations have pinned the Celtics in a tough spot if they desire to climb in the seedings, something Irving lamented in Orlando.
But there’s no reason this team can’t still be the team we expected. We’ve seen glimpses. Too often their frustrations have made their journey more difficult than it has to be.
No minor roster tweak is going to solve the issue. The suggestion of “too much talent” seems foolish as well as good teams figure out how to maximize all parts of their roster.
The biggest question from this vantage is whether this team can get out of its own way. Lingering on all that’s gone wrong won’t help them. Pointing fingers isn’t going to make things better. The Celtics have to focus on what they can control.
The Celtics gotta get past mad.
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