ORLANDO, Fla. — The Celtics came to the NBA bubble as a darkhorse to reach the NBA Finals, a team with enough talent to scare anyone and now without having to concern itself with losing home-court advantage to the Toronto Raptors or Milwaukee Bucks, the top two teams in the Eastern Conference.
In their opening scrimmage, the Celtics didn’t appear sure of themselves as contenders, looking bewildered and overwhelmed in a loss to the Oklahoma City Thunder. Sunday’s performance against the Phoenix Suns, a 117-103 win at Visa Center, was a better response.
But after looking at some of the NBA’s top teams over the past few days — you can do that when there are six games per day — it’s apparent the Celtics don’t quite carry the swagger of teams such as the Los Angeles Lakers, Los Angeles Clippers or even the Raptors.
Perhaps it was that second-round playoff thumping last season at the hands of the Bucks that has the Celtics a little frazzled. But it’s going to require a couple of more performances like Sunday and more practice time for the Celtics to really truly believe they are contenders.
Everybody else say they are, but what do they say?
What may make the Celtics vulnerable is their top two stars — Jaylen Brown and Jayson Tatum — have never led a team through the playoffs as the primary weapons. Two years ago they relied on Al Horford, Marcus Morris and other veterans in that run to Game 7 of the Eastern Conference Finals. Last season, Kyrie Irving promised everybody the Celtics would shake their drama and chaos and turned into a dominant playoff team.
And they ended up a knockout victim, embarrassed by a superior team.
So what will be different this year? Why will the Celtics suddenly be more prepared and equipped to beat the Bucks and Raptors?
“The more connected team is really going to be the team that excels in this type of environment,” guard Marcus Smart said. “You don’t have the crowd. You have to do it yourself every game, every game. You can’t really start out slow and we saw that from the other game [Friday]. Trying to ease into it and trying to figure it out isn’t the way to go. You have to come out hard and ready to play and that helps.”
What also infuses this team with confidence is the presence of Kemba Walker, who played nine minutes in his resumption debut after nursing knee discomfort. Walker played with the emotion, confidence and burst of energy that motivated his team.
The Celtics will only compete for a championship when they are whole. Walker helps this team in so many ways. He’s the quarterback, the player who manages the game. But like his younger teammates, Walker will also have to adjust to the intensity of this new playoff environment. He’s never won a playoff round in his career, so he is the leader but not the most experienced in this situation.
“We have to be tougher in this environment,” Walker said. “It’s just so different, so quiet, you have to have everybody locked in as best as you can. Do I have dreams of winning a championship? No question. I do think we have the opportunity. We can get there one day but we’re just going to keep working towards that as a team, keep getting better.”
Smart is considered the “heart and soul” of the team because of his gritty style and relentlessness. He understands he will have to be more commanding in his approach with his teammates. Motivation is important here because there are no fans, there are no boos, no reason to put your index finger to your lips to quiet the crowd.
“Being here for some guys is better because there’s less distractions,” Smart said. “Family, friends and all the outside noise (aren’t here). It’s quiet here. You can focus on yourself and get yourself right.”
Sunday was a step in the right direction but the Celtics know they are far from where they need to be to push the Bucks and Raptors to the brink.
“We have to continue to prepare like every game is our last game,” Smart said. “We can’t take any games for granted. You have to really prepare. We have to come out in attack mode. We see what coming out and not being prepared did to us.”
The Celtics lack the swagger of a potential champion right now, but they are hoping to gain that fortitude over the next 2½ weeks of seeded games. They’ll have matchups with the Bucks and Raptors, along with the Heat and Trail Blazers, to gain their footing and prepare themselves for a long playoff run. The Celtics are a little wobbly right now, which is OK, but eventually they will need to assert themselves, play a full 48 minutes and at their potential to be a legitimate contender.