True story: I believed the Celtics would beat the Warriors last Tuesday.
Didn’t tweet it. Didn’t predict it in print. Certainly didn’t expect it to be by 33 points. Probably didn’t say it out loud, except maybe to one of our cats. (I work from home often, so they get to hear a lot of the trial balloons on my hot takes.) But I believed it.
I’ll pause here while you say the requisite, “Suuuuuure you did, Finn. I suppose you also know the Powerball numbers?”
Actually, I don’t know those, but I’m definitely close. I have five: 3, 5, 32, 33, and 44. Those are the jersey numbers of four starters on the 1986 Celtics, plus sixth-man Bill Walton. I can’t tell you the sixth number because Robert Parish was 00 and that’s not usable in Powerball. Maybe we should try 8 for Scott Wedman?
Glad to help. You owe me 20 percent of your winnings if they hit. This is binding.
Wow, that’s an early digression even by my meandering standards. Back to the topic: these current Celtics, and their maddening knack for making anything seem possible on either end of the spectrum.
I really did think they would beat the Warriors to begin that recent four-game West Coast trip on which they went 3-1. I didn’t think they would beat the precocious Sacramento Kings the next night, and that victory — which came on a lovely late jumper by the possibly rejuvenated Gordon Hayward — was in its own way almost as impressive as throttling the Warriors.
(I said almost.)
The Kings, led by roadrunner point guard De’Aaron Fox, are a young, hustling team that should have blown the Celtics off the court on the second night of a back-to-back after the long trip west. The Celtics aced that test of resilience, and they haven’t passed many of those this year.
That West Coast swing, which included a win over LeBron James and the broken Lakers and a loss to the Clippers in which the Celtics yielded 140 points, must be considered a success even with the ugly final scene.
But here’s one thing I’m not even going to try to predict: whether this trip was confirmation that the Celtics, who heading into Thursday’s home rematch with the Kings own a 41-27 record and a fifth-place standing in the Eastern Conference, have untangled all of the issues that have kept them from thus far fulfilling their high hopes this season.
There’s reason to believe in them. I’m just not sure they deserve it just yet.
There is already much chatter that the plane ride to California allowed the players to build camaraderie and maybe enjoy a little bit of overdue catharsis. If, after all of the turbulence this season, they do end up getting where we wanted them to in the first place — namely, reaching the NBA Finals and giving presumably the Warriors at least a fight — then the plane trip, on which they put away their phones and made a conscious effort to bond as teammates, will become the stuff of legend.
But even with the willingness to write off the Clippers loss as a hiccup . . . well, this team has had a lot of hiccups this year, right? You know the ones I mean: The blowout loss to the lousy Bulls, the back-to-back losses before the All-Star break to the Lakers and Clippers, even a loss to the hapless Knicks back in November.
I want proof over these final 14 games of the regular season that their hiccups have been cured and there will be no more indifferent losses to teams that look like they should be overwhelmed on paper but are permitted to hang tough on the court. Catching the Sixers and Pacers — tied for the No. 3 spot in the East, two games up on the Celtics — also would be a convincing bit of evidence in confirming that they do indeed have some resolve.
If you want encouraging signs that the Celtics finally know who they are and are about to peak when the games matter the most, I’ll give you two:
1. Kyrie Irving remains an A-plus ballhandler, an A-plus finisher, an A-minus shooter, and seems intent for now on being something more than a D-plus teammate. If he can resist his inclination to talk about teammates as if they are unruly stepchildren — or at least keep such thoughts to himself rather than making them a featured part of the postgame show every time the Celtics lose — it should have a positive effect on chemistry. Maybe it already has.
2. Hayward is playing well more often. Listen, anyone who thinks he is all the way back clearly wasn’t familiar with his work with the Jazz. His 30-point masterpiece against the Warriors was standard fare from his Utah heyday. He was a genuinely excellent player, one of the top 15 or 20 in the league, before his hideous injury five minutes into his Celtics career.
He’s showing flashes of being that player again — his winning shot against the Kings, which required confidence even to attempt, was vintage Hayward — and those flashes are coming around more often.
Not that I’m predicting anything right now, but if this trend can continue into April and then May, the Celtics might just get to play in June, too.