Through all the ups and downs so far — the affirming wins and perplexing losses, Kyrie Irving’s genius shot-making, Terry Rozier’s worst World B. Free imitation, the rumors and meetings and general this-wasn’t-supposed-to-be-so-difficult vibe — I’ve never wavered from one belief about the Celtics:
No matter how much drama along the way, self-inflicted or otherwise, if they were healthy through the playoffs, they would prevail as the Eastern Conference champions.
Well, here we are, 60 games and just 37 victories into this season, and I’m officially wavering, man. If the Celtics’ achievements are going to match the sum of their individual talents, they’re already well overdue in getting their act together. Maybe this — mercurial, talented, and occasionally lackadaisical but relentlessly aggravating in their underachievement — is just who they are.
The Celtics began the season of great expectations by going 10-10 over their first 20 games. That was a surprise, but an understandable one. Irving was back from a knee injury, Gordon Hayward was returning from his hideous leg injury, and they had to meld their skills with a group of veterans and young players that had advanced to Game 7 of the Eastern Conference finals without them.
We should have expected it to take time, especially once it became clear that Hayward’s reemergence was going to be a long process.
But they have fallen into a predictable and annoying pattern since then. They’ll play extremely well for prolonged stretches, perhaps beat a very good team or two, and convince you that they’re finally living up to their billing. Then inevitably they’ll go out and lose a game in a fashion so ugly that it makes you forget about the good work that preceded it.
The most glaring example? From Jan. 16-Feb. 5, they won 10 of 11 games, sandwiching a pair of five-game winning streaks around a hard-fought and well-played 4-point loss to the mighty Warriors. They had arrived. This was the team we were expecting to see. Surely they would now propel themselves toward and perhaps even past the Bucks and Raptors at the top of the Eastern Conference. They’d figured it out and found their identity. Look out, NBA, the Celtics have awakened.
Then they went out and blew 18- and 28-point leads on their home court in losses to those Los Angeles mediocrities, the Lakers and Clippers.
It’s exasperating, and the pattern still lives on. The Celtics pulled out an impressive Kyrie-less win at Philadelphia last Tuesday, won the next night against Detroit when they might have had an excuse to lose (all back-to-backs are brutal), then in their first game after the All-Star break endured a tough but fairly encouraging 1-point loss to the Bucks in Milwaukee.
How did they follow that? By getting torched by the Bulls, a 15-win team they had beaten by 56 points earlier this season.
I’m not giving up on this group, but I’m just about giving up on any clear solution regarding how to solve this. The loss in Chicago had many culprits, from steady Al Horford failing to block out on a couple of late rebounds to Hayward looking as unsure as he has in weeks to Tatum just floating aimlessly to Rozier jacking up 9 shots and making just 1 in 15 minutes of playing time. If he’s going to be in time-to-get-mine mode no matter what, it’s time for Brad Wanamaker to siphon some of his minutes, though that will hardly solve everything.
The loss was so aggravating, and yet so familiar, that it took away any satisfaction that came from watching Irving try to take over down the stretch. There was a gotta-carry-these-guys resignation in his excellence.
At 37-23, the Celtics need to go 18-4 to match last season’s record, and 16-6 to equal the record of the 2016-17 team’s group of plucky overachievers, led by Isaiah Thomas. That’s not happening, given their difficult remaining schedule, which includes Tuesday’s matchup at Toronto and next Tuesday’s visit to Oakland to face the Warriors.
Some of this is on coach Brad Stevens, who only recently has begun spending timeouts to stop prolonged runs by the opponent. If he has tried to silence players’ gripes — whether about teammates’ effort or maturity — from going public, it hasn’t worked. But each of his last four Celtics teams have overachieved. He deserves the benefit of the doubt more than anyone on his roster. If you can’t thrive playing for Stevens, the problem is you.
This much is certain right now: It’s time to recalibrate expectations. Winning the conference is still realistic if they can solve a few of these maddening matters. They’re 7-4 against the Bucks, Raptors, Pacers, and Sixers, the four teams in front of them in the conference standings. They’re not catching the Bucks or Raptors, but they’re three games back of the Victor Oladipo-less Pacers for the No. 3 spot and a game back of the Sixers for the No. 4 seed.
It’s imperative to secure at least the No. 4 spot and assure themselves of home-court advantage in the first round.
That’s a minor goal compared with what expectations were coming into this season. But it’s their own fault that the big dreams are on the back burner for now.
Perhaps the Celtics can be a flip-the-switch team, one that morphs into its best self come playoff time. But right now, when Rozier is jacking up lousy shots and Irving looks perpetually annoyed and all of the Celtics who aren’t named Marcus Smart are getting outhustled by lesser talents, they’re awfully close to being a flip-the-channel team. Their disinterest in no longer interesting.
Chad Finn can be reached at email@example.com. Follow him on Twitter @GlobeChadFinn.