It’s hovering over the Celtics as they prepare for their Eastern Conference first-round playoff series with the Indiana Pacers. What cannot be denied but isn’t discussed is the sense of urgency spread throughout the roster because of the major changes that could be in store this summer.
The Celtics have six soon-to-be free agents or players who can opt out of their contracts and become free agents, and the roster will be decidedly different next season. Team president of basketball operations Danny Ainge capitalized on some favorable contracts — such as those of Marcus Morris and Daniel Theis — and timing to compile a team that could make a run at the NBA Finals.
There appeared to be a high level of long-term certainty when Kyrie Irving verbally committed to re-signing with the Celtics in October. The Celtics knew they might lose Morris and Theis and even Terry Rozier after this season, but at least Irving was coming back.
Well, Irving recanted those words a few months ago and this tumultuous regular season in which the Celtics finished a disappointing fourth in the East, suffered from cases of infighting, and lacked fortitude and toughness has done nothing to offer security to the organization in terms of Irving’s future.
Al Horford can also opt out of his contract. Rozier, who wants to start and understands it may not happen in Boston, is a restricted free agent.
So this could be the final playoff run for this group — and it’s the first run for Irving and Gordon Hayward, who missed last year’s playoffs with injuries. The time is now for the Celtics. The team could be completely reshaped next season if Irving opts out and signs elsewhere, Ainge decides to trade for Anthony Davis, and players such as Rozier, Theis, and Brad Wanamaker are allowed to walk.
That puts even more of an onus on the Celtics to make a long playoff run. A first-round exit would be an embarrassing blow to a franchise that has taken its share of hits this season because of failed expectations.
“To be real candid, I don’t think anybody is thinking about what happens this summer at all,” Celtics coach Brad Stevens said. “I think we’ve got a sense of urgency because it’s the playoffs and this is what we’re all really excited about doing.
“It’s been a year well documented that has been up and down from what we would have hoped, but that’s part of it. And now you get to hit a little bit of a reset button and get after it. You know you have to get after it.
“I don’t think anybody is worried about what happens after. I think everybody is thinking what do we need to do [Sunday] to win.”
Ainge said he believes the postseason will bring out the best in his team because of that sense of urgency and the “win or go home” playoff mantra will eliminate some of those regular-season issues.
“That’s what I love about the playoffs. I do think the playoffs bring out the best in teamwork, sacrifice, winning,” he said. “I think the regular season there are other distractions occasionally like pending free agency and playing time, All-Star balloting, all sorts of things that can get in the way and interfere. I feel like playoffs, it really is all about the team and about winning. Guys have an easier time settling into roles, even if it’s not the roles they love, and it makes this time of year the most fun.”
The Celtics players had no hesitation admitting the regular season was a grind that was filled with distractions. There were leadership issues, quibbles about playing time and roles, mental lapses that turned sure wins into excruciating losses, and a team that didn’t quite seem to know what to do with its talent.
“Yeah I couldn’t wait for this year to be over, I ain’t gonna lie to you,” said Rozier, who had to sacrifice his role after starting during the playoffs last season. “Because of a lot of things, but I’m ready for the playoffs and that’s the important thing.”
Irving hasn’t addressed his future in months. One moment he appears unhappy and ready to end the Boston relationship. The next moment he’s pledging his loyalty to Stevens and joking and bonding with his teammates. It’s uncertain what makes Irving happy, besides just plain basketball, which will be the sole focus until the season is over.
“Stats go out the window,” he said. “Everything else in terms of what has happened and transpired during the regular season goes out the window. Everything is about the true essence of basketball. Nothing else about the drama or extracurricular stuff. It will be nice to focus on the game and actually talk about basketball.”
The players and coaches are saying the right things about focus and concentration and perhaps that’s half the battle. But they all know collectively that things won’t be the same next season. The roster will change, even if Irving does return, so it will be one final chance for this group.
Last year they reached Game 7 of the Eastern Conference finals without Irving and Hayward. This year they want to go farther and the playoffs are being viewed as a reboot after a turbulent regular season.
“That’s the beautiful thing of the playoffs that everybody loves is it really is a start-over-and-see-what-happens and I’m excited about that,” Ainge said. “It’s been a challenging year for some of the players and for the coach because it’s always hard to manage expectations. You never really know how everything is going to work together and you never really know what injuries are going to happen and there’s just been a lot of unusual circumstances. I don’t think it’s anything to overreact to but I do think we need to be playing at our best in order to beat [playoff] teams.
“We haven’t played our best basketball in my opinion. We’ve played some really good basketball in stretches this year, but I do believe we’re capable of playing better and that’s what I’ll continue to hope for.”