The Boston Celtics started the season making a lot of hard promises.
Despite not making any significant acquisitions last summer, they held championship aspirations -- and for good reason. Without Gordon Hayward and Kyrie Irving, the Celtics came within one victory of a trip to the NBA Finals last season. The presumption was the East would be wide open with LeBron James out West. Brad Stevens would have a full arsenal to work with come playoff time.
Bill Simmons infamously predicted this Celtics team would win 67 games and it somehow didn’t reek of homerism.
It took awhile for the Celtics to marinate with Irving and Hayward in the fold, but they entered the All-Star break with a 37-21 record, within striking distance of the teams ahead of them in the standings. The first week after the break, however, proved to be a harbinger of things to come.
Boston lost four straight, including an ugly 10-point loss to the lowly Chicago Bulls. They would end up needing a run of six wins in their final eight games simply to finish at .500 in the second half. A team that dreamt of a title in October entered the playoffs as a four seed.
The message as the season progressed became one focused on the ability to right the ship once the postseason began. The leader of that propaganda was Irving, who repeatedly insisted that the Celtics would flip the switch when it mattered most. After a disconcerting loss in February, he made one of the boldest declarations of the season.
“We’ll be fine,” he said.
How could he be so certain?
“Because I’m here,” he responded.
Irving’s words briefly seemed prophetic. The Celtics drew the Indiana Pacers in the first round and swept their way into the semifinals with Irving leading the way. Add those wins to the six that ended the season and Boston had suddenly put together a 10-2 stretch. The proverbial switch had been flipped, right?
Things weren’t quite as they seemed.
The Pacers fought hard, but the season largely ended for them when Victor Oladipo went down for the year in January. It becomes fairly easy to shut down a team’s offense over the course of a series when that team lacks a go-to scorer. That run to end the regular season was a mirage as well. Only two of those six wins came against a fellow playoff entrant and both of those came against Indiana. If you remove the wounded Pacers from the mix, the Celtics only beat one playoff team after the All-Star break (the Golden State Warriors on March 5).
With the top-seeded Milwaukee Bucks looming in the second round, it was finally time for the Celtics to show real urgency and play the type of basketball that was promised in the fall and wouldn’t you know, they delivered.
Boston won Game 1 in Milwaukee decisively, holding presumptive MVP Giannis Antetokounmpo to 22 points on 21 shots. Irving scored 26, they assisted on more than half of their field goals and committed just 11 turnovers. A path to fulfilling expectations seemed possible once again. Then the bottom fell out.
After dropping three-straight to the Bucks, including back-to-back games at TD Garden, the Celtics are one loss from elimination at the hands of the team they defeated last spring while shorthanded. In Game 4 on Monday night with Boston needing a win to even the series at two wins apiece, Irving went 7-for-22 from the field.
“Who cares?” Irving said afterward. “I’m a basketball player. Prepare the right way. Like I said, it’s a little different when your rhythm is challenged every play down. You’re being picked up full court. They’re doing things to test you. The expectations on me are going to be sky high. I try to utilize their aggression against them and still put my teammates in great position, while still being aggressive. I’m trying to do it all. For me, 22 shots, I should have shot 30. I’m that great of a shooter.”
A second-round exit would be disappointing enough for the Celtics, but all the kicking of the can done during the season has compounded things. There is no more time to plead for patience. No more justifying the belief that another gear can be reached with the snap of one’s fingers.
Irving has waffled this season, talking himself into circles on more than one occasion. I defended him in this space back in February when he walked back on comments made about re-signing with Boston, but there is nothing shielding him now as he, and his team, fail to live up to expectations that he helped create.
The Celtics should have been a championship-level team this year and there is no shortage of blame to pass around.
Instead of waiting for the Celtics to flip the switch, we should have questioned the presence of a switch at all.