BOSTON – What are we supposed to do with the Celtics?
Favorite of the pre-season to win the Eastern Conference, the C spent a good part of the regular season to spin in fourth place. They lost games that they did not have to lose and failed inexplicably to compete with others. Universally recognized as the strongest mentally strong team in the league last season, this version of C's is dissolved in a vertiginous fog of aggressive and passive finger pointing, slumped shoulders and cryptic quotes.
And even. (Get used to this sentence because it will be used frequently.)
The Celtics play their best basketball game as the playoffs get up this afternoon on the Garden floor for their first-round series against the Pacers. In the past month, they have won safe games on the road and took charge of their home business. The fact that the C's even hold a first round streak is proof of their solid play in the stretch, including two wins against Indiana.
It did not detract from the fact that the Pacers fell in free fall during that same period, a disturbing finish of what had been a remarkable season full of adversity. But this series is about the Celtics. It is then that we will finally be able to see what they are made of and discover once and for all how good they are. Or not.
A few weeks ago, we could have considered this series as a contest. Now that the Celtics have given us another taste of their potential, losing would be a disaster. An ideal disaster for an uneven season with such expectations, perhaps, but a disaster anyway.
"A lot of bullshit, a lot of ups and downs that just could have been better managed from a professional point of view," Irving told reporters on Wednesday. "I'm talking about myself personally, I'm not talking about our team."
Kyrie offers a series of mea culpas for what can be described euphemistically as leadership style this season, but because it is Kyrie, he then took a strange turn.
"I had a lot of questions," continued Irving. "There are a lot of things that have not been answered directly about what it takes to be a great professional in this league and I think the framework of all this is quite outdated, in terms of what you need to be every day and it's not that difficult.
Nobody illustrates more than Kyrie this strange season of the Celtics. One of the best eccentrics in the league, Irving has undoubtedly had the best season of his career, while leaving shade to his teammates whenever it suited him.
Always provocative to the press, Kyrie was angry at the media for finding it interesting, which seemed curious. Even more curious, the C was not very good when he was not in the field, except when he was in business attire, where they were perfectly fine without him. As was the case last season when they reached the final phase of the conference while he was recovering from a knee operation.
Do not worry if none of this makes sense. Logic and spirits flew away last fall when the Cs struggled to recover. Young players who flourished without Irving and Gordon Hayward struggled to adapt to life as role players. Hayward went on the bench in a long quest of the season to find himself and actors such as Marcus Morris and Marcus Smart were suddenly presented as saviors.
Injuries were not as bad as last season, but many minor problems have become major headaches. Especially when they involved Aron Baynes, their great man / performer 20 minutes a night whose periodic absences revealed an alarming lack of hardness and cohesion.
Kyrie walked briskly, sneaking through defenses while creating controversy when none of them was needed. Like all teams, the Celtics walked at the pace of their leader, only Irving seemed to play a tempo that he was the only one to understand.
Things got more complicated in January following a strange series of soliloquies in which Kyrie accused young players of not meeting his standards, then questioned his independent agency by suggesting that he owed nothing to anyone. If it was his way of testing his teammates to see if they could handle the internal dramas, it was turning dramatically. The team that handled everything melted in the middle of a chorus of madmen of the faithful of the garden with even more inexcusable performances.
The destiny of the Celtics does not lie with Kyrie, but with Al Horford. The venerable imposing man was at the center of the scene last spring and delivered an unprecedented playoff performance that nearly drove the under-employed Celtics to the finals. If Horford is right, and has looked very good in recent months, the Celtics will be dangerous.
Horford is the ideal solution for difficult defensive confrontations from Giannis Antetokounmpo to Joel Embiid, and is a serious problem for opponents who have to follow him beyond the 3-point line. Add to that his excellent leadership skills at the high post and his faithful old man match at the lowest level and Big Al will perfectly suit opposing teams.
You can also say that Hayward is the other key to unleashing C's potential. After a frustrating return season that hit its lowest point after the All-Star break, Hayward suddenly rediscovered his rebounding game. He has averaged 14-5-3 over his last 14 games, giving the Celtics a much needed gaming option.
It's no coincidence that Boston looked as good as she did throughout the season with the rejuvenated Hayen anchoring her second units. The C's defeated Golden State and Hayward scored 30 points. And he played a crucial role in the clashes on the road with the Heat and Pacers, who locked their playing field in the first round.
Give this team a healthy Horford, a blocked Kyrie, and this version of Hayward and nothing says so far.
Since this is the 2019 Celtics, it would be wrong to start the playoffs so seamlessly. In a senseless match against Orlando last Sunday, Marcus Smart suffered a partial avulsion of his left oblique abdominal muscle from his iliac crest. This means he will be away for 4 to 6 weeks, the balance of the first two rounds at least, if not all of the Eastern Conference playoffs.
It's a hard blow because Backcourt Draymond has really taken off this season. His keen sense of defense has made him one of the most formidable defenders in the league. His 3-point shot finally caught his shot. The absence of Smart will be felt throughout the playoffs, not only during matches, but with the loss of the unlimited energy it brings to the task.
The absence of Smart opens the door to Jaylen Brown and Terry Rozier to play bigger roles. Both players thrived under the pressure of the playoffs last season, and both were hampered by the reduction in their chances.
Brown finally managed to make his way into mid-season, but the stakes could not be higher for Rozier, who was released this summer. Rozier is already optimistic about his chance to put his regular season behind him and to be forgiven in the playoffs.
There is a path to redemption and it is clearly obvious to everyone around the team. He begins by winning this series with the Pacers by all means necessary. It does not matter if it's ugly, given the opponent, it will probably not be pretty anyway. It may take longer than necessary and there will probably be at least one disconcerting defeat, because there is always one looming around the corner with this team.
It may take six or seven games, but no matter how things went, the Cs must win this series. From there, they would go to Milwaukee, separate from a pair with the Bucks and come back home to welcome a hero. Take the fire at the right time and everything will be forgiven. We have already seen it with this franchise, 2010 to be exact, and the parallels are strange enough to imagine them turned to a parallel path.
What are we supposed to do Celtics? We are about to know it.
Can you repeat it please?!?
"I like to be free. I have a good life … what am I doing? I have a good life. I will return to this beautiful life. I am looking forward to it. Someone will have to warn my boss because I know she will be sick (Jeannie Buss). But I knew I could not face him face to face and tell him. "
– Magic Johnson after leaving the Lakers via a press conference.
Reaction: Totally normal organization.
"I am very comfortable here and at ease with (Robert Pera) and I do not worry about my situation."
– Chris Wallace, CEO of Memphis, hours before being sacked by Robert Pera.
Reaction: It is perfectly normal to send your general manager to speak to the press about next season, then send it back, as well as your coach.
"I did not choose (the shirt) actually. It was already hanging for me when I put on my clothes.
– Anthony Davis after wearing a t-shirt with the words: "Everyone is at home" in his last game in New Orleans as a Pelican.
Reaction: Totally normal league.
Consumable Thoughts NBA
Brief reflections and predictions on the other series of the first round. Note that the predictions were made before the end of the matches on Saturday.
The Bucks had a break when they shot the Pistons in the first round. Considering that the franchise has not won playoffs since the days of Ray Allen, Sam Cassell, Big Dog Robinson and the other Ervin Johnson, this is not an easy task. Congratulations to Detroit and the underrated Ish Smith for getting this last playoff spot, but that should not be too tight. Dollars out of four.
The Raptors have not broken with the Magic, who have been playing for months in an excellent defense and who have the ultimate factor x reserve, top scorer, Terrence Ross. It does not matter what the Raps are, but when has anything been easy for them in the playoffs? Raps in six, for the sake of the good old days.
Given Joel Embiid's questionable state of health, Philly is in a stalemate after losing decisively. All the credit goes to Brooklyn, who executed a perfect game plan and looked like the smarter and more united team on Saturday. The Sixers, meanwhile, posted all the bad traits they have accumulated throughout the season. This is the moment when Jimmy Butler really needs to shine. Six out of six, but six exhausting.
There is little that the Warriors appreciate more than beating the Clippers, which is also the last Western Conference franchise to beat Golden State in playoffs. It was at the time of Lob City, which looks like an eternity. I still have no real idea of what to do Warriors, but it sounds like a proper warming test. Warriors on five.
The Nuggets must win this round to validate their breakout season. If they had caught OKC or Utah, you would have seen a lot of angry choices. Enter the Spurs, who are smart enough to take advantage of Denver's inexperience, but lack the best talent to really take advantage of the situation. Consider this series as a top level basketball game for the Nuggets. It will be difficult, but feasible. Nuggets in seven.
The Blazers did not really want the third place because it involved an appointment with the Thunder who won all four games of the season. Aside from the seeds, it's interesting to wonder if a Thunder win would be a surprise, given that they have one of the top three players in the league at Paul George and a recent winner at Russell Westbrook. Never bet against Lady Lillard is my unofficial motto, but it does not look fantastic for the Blazers. Thunder on six.
The Jazz have been one of the best teams in the league in the last month, with a 13-3 lead over impenetrable defense and a revitalized Donovan Mitchell. The problem is that Houston was even better during this period and the Rockets are a nightmare for the Jazz. Sowing 4-5 actually works for Houston's benefit. Better to have warriors sooner than later. The first things first, however. Rockets out of five, but I do not feel well.