Can the Celtics get past their frustration and become a contender?

Can the Celtics get past their frustration and become a contender?

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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Kyrie Irving: Celtics 'can’t be comfortable being' fifth seed

Kyrie Irving: Celtics 'can’t be comfortable being' fifth seed

ORLANDO — Kyrie Irving is not content with the notion of the Boston Celtics simply playing their best basketball by the time the postseason arrives.

As part of his postgame musings following Boston’s disappointing 105-103 loss to the Orlando Magic on Saturday night, Irving said he’s not happy that Boston sits fifth in the Eastern Conference and wants the team to fight for premium seeding in the second half of the season.

This came after he offered firm words for Boston’s younger players, demanding they bring the same sustained intensity as Boston’s veterans given the team’s lofty goals this season.

"I think that what we’re facing now is nothing compared to being on that stage trying to get a gold trophy,” Irving said, referencing the Larry O’Brien trophy. "It’s hard now, what do you think it’s going to be when we get to the Finals? Let alone, s---, we’re trying to play a position right now trying to get a great seed. 

"That should be our No. 1 goal, and that right there is a realization for me that, even when I’m thinking about the future, I gotta think about how do we get there. But what steps do we need to hit? That’s a goal first, just getting a seed. We can’t be comfortable being in fifth.”

A 10-10 start to the season has left Boston parked in the fifth spot in the East for much of the season. A four-game win streak to start the new calendar year put Boston in position to start a surge but back-to-back losses in Florida to start this road trip made the team pump the brakes.

With a head-to-head matchup looming next week, Boston sits 6 games back of the conference-leading Toronto Raptors. Boston is also 4.5 games back of Milwaukee, 3 games back of Indiana, and 1.5 games back of Philadelphia.

Standings projections have typically given the Celtics a good chance to climb as high as 3 in the East but the Pacers’ sustained success could leave Boston fighting to get ahead of them. And, if the 76ers beef up their depth and shooting via trade or buyout, that only makes them a bit more dangerous.

Irving seems to recognize that it’s simply not good enough for Boston to hope to be playing its best basketball by the time the playoffs arrive.

"I’m not comfortable in [the fifth seed] so now I go back and really rework things and try to think about how I attack the next day,” said Irving. “But the frustration [of Saturday’s loss] is still inside of me."

Later Irving added: "We’ve got one more game on this road trip, it’s always good to go home for me and I’m always good to see my family. I know guys will enjoy New York as well, it’ll be good to just play in that type of environment. Orlando deserved this win, they earned it, a few loose balls we could have gotten, you know, 50/50 basketballs. But that happens. 

"Things that we can control we can get better at.”

The Celtics have to get better at those things or they’ll be settling for the less-than-ideal seeding that Irving does not desire.

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Kyrie Irving demands more from young Celtics

Kyrie Irving demands more from young Celtics

ORLANDO — The Boston Celtics’ locker room had all but cleared out by the time Kyrie Irving stood up, removed the earbuds that he had been popped in while decompressing in his locker chair, and made his way to the showers.

Irving had been visibly upset with the way Boston’s final play unfolded, likely preferring the ball would have found its way to his hands with a chance to win the game. The Celtics instead settled for a tough 21-foot fadeaway by Jayson Tatum that clanged off the iron in a 105-103 loss at the Amway Center.

Dressed in a gray Nike sweatsuit and with a black hat pulled low, Irving eventually plopped down on a folding table in front of reporters. He dismissed the first five questions he faced in less than 50 words, an oddity for a player that’s typically loquacious in his responses.

Asked about Boston’s inconsistencies, Irving launched into a response that went on for over two minutes, citing Boston’s lack of experience as a major factor in the team’s seesaw play. Irving suggested that younger players are not playing hard enough for a full 48 minutes and said they’ve got to appreciate more the opportunity that’s in front of them.

While Irving ultimately pinned much of the blame on himself for not being able to get the most out of the roster, he also noted how those younger players, seeing a potentially long window of being a title contender, might not be as eager to embrace the work that’s needed for Boston to be great.

And Irving is eager to be great right now. His response to the query on explaining Boston’s ups and downs, in full: 

"Experience. It’s the best thing I can say is experience. We’re lacking it and, because of that, we have a lot of learning to do. So we have a lot of ground to make up in that aspect. It gets tough. When it gets hard you’ve got to think. You’ve got to do the right things. You can’t gamble and think that it’s going to be the winning play. You’ve got to be able to play the full 48 minutes, no matter what’s going on, and hold your head high when you make mistakes. When your job is called upon, you’ve got to do it to the best of your ability. You’ve got to come in and make an impact for the minutes that you’re playing out there. 

"You’ve got to appreciate being out there and just competing. It doesn’t matter who you’re going against. It matters the type of preparation you have, what you’re going out and trying to accomplish. What’s the big picture? What are we doing here? These are things I don’t think some of my teammates have faced of just every single day. It’s not easy to be great. 

"So the things you’re doing, that you’ve done your entire career, of being able to coast by in certain situations, and you’ve gotten away with your youth and stuff like that. Being on a championship ball club, you can’t get away with that. You see the fans going crazy. You see it gets loud. 

"I know from the majority of the fact that we’re better than most teams in this league. It’s just going out and proving it every single night and demanding it and actually showing it. So until we do that every single night and realize our depth is a positive and all the wishes and could haves and should have done that, once that goes out the window, then we’ll be better. But until then, we’re going to keep having these ups and downs and these lulls of going against teams on the road and they just know they can take advantage of us down the stretch, or when this group is in or that’s group out.

"It has to be a cohesion. I’ve got to be better as the leader of the team as doing so and making sure these guys have more experience in certain situations like that, being more communicative. So I put it on me of just being better.”

There’s a lot to digest there. Irving, who has been critical of Boston’s younger players at times this season and seems to be suggesting that the young ‘uns don’t always play with the same urgency that the veterans know is required. Al Horford, who is always careful not to assign much blame, echoed this sentiment when he said, "I don’t think that we’re playing hard enough all the time.”

The Celtics had been up 8 when the reserves started to roll in with 3:16 to play in the first quarter. Boston generated just a single free throw over the final 4:06 of the frame, allowing the Magic to rally back. Boston went another 99 seconds without scoring to start the second quarter as Orlando built as much as an eight-point lead of their own.

It’s unfair to pin Irving’s frustrations on one player; he clearly wants more from all of the stars from last year’s playoff run. That would include someone like Terry Rozier, who missed all five shots he took and had just two assists over 17 minutes while going scoreless. Tatum battled foul trouble Saturday and needed 16 shots for 16 points, while Jaylen Brown and the Celtics wing defenders had trouble corralling Terrence Ross as he erupted for 25 points off the Orlando bench.

Boston had won four straight at home to start the new calendar year and it was fair to wonder if its inconsistencies were behind them. Now, they’ve dropped two in a row to start this road trip.

After Irving’s long response, he was asked to compare the ups and downs of Cleveland’s title teams with what Boston is currently facing. He said there was no comparing them.

"I was on the oldest team in the league, guys were on, I don’t want to say their last legs, but it’s all or nothing. Their window was closing, so they knew it,” said Irving. "Their joy in what they were doing was coming from a place of ‘This is my last thing that I’m doing before my career is over. I’m trying to win a championship.’ Every single day was built towards that.

"Here, these guys are coming into a window where it’s very big, they have 14 years, 13 years, however many years you wanna say, and you know the emphasis on every day doing it, it doesn’t become important to some young guys until they get later in their career where they have to appreciate their talent more, they have to adjust, or do something.”

Irving started to digress, pointing to the strides the team had made before the last two losses. He reaffirmed that he’ll always remain patient but you can tell that some of these tough losses are testing that patience.

"I try not to take too much into other games but this one hurt, just from the simple fact that we haven’t been well on the road, we’ve lost games we should have won, and it’s frustrating,” admitted Irving.

Irving was asked about the difficulty in re-establishing chemistry after he and Hayward missed so much time last season. Stevens had already downplayed that notion, reminding a reporter that this team is 42 games into a new season.

Irving noted that the expectations are simply different this year.

“We had nothing to lose last year,” he said. "We had nothing to lose and everybody could play free, and do whatever they wanted and nobody had any expectations. We were supposed to be at a certain point, we surpassed that. Young guys were supposed to be at a certain point, they surpassed that. 

"We come into this season, expectations, and it’s real. Everyone from the coaching staff to the players, it’s very much real every single day, so, that’s new. It’s tough. It’s hard.”

Irving wants the team’s younger players to work harder when things go awry. He wants them to be mentally tougher when things don’t go as planned. Irving believes that, in order for the Celtics to truly accomplish their goals, this team needs the younger players to want to be great as much as Irving so clearly yearns for this team to reach that level.

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