By Sean Sylver, 98.5 The Sports Hub
It’s time to stop comparing this year’s Boston Celtics to last year’s squad.
You know, the team that made it to Game 7 of the Eastern Conference Finals without Kyrie Irving or Gordon Hayward.
The team that, after losing Hayward to a gruesome injury, ripped off a 16-game winning streak.
This year’s model, with Irving and Hayward in tow, was predicted to have plenty of winning streaks on the way to 60-plus victories and a spot in the NBA Finals, where they’d maybe even put a scare into the Golden State Warriors. A decade after Banner 17, this was the team best equipped to raise an 18th championship flag since Kevin Garnett & Co. held a 3-2 lead headed back to Los Angeles in the 2010 Finals.
They still are.
But player development isn’t always linear, and comebacks from injury aren’t always assured. While many would like NBA games to be played on a spreadsheet (or at least NBA 2K), the season takes place between painted lines on a wooden floor and things like “chemistry” and “intangibles” matter.
With an 11-10 record, the Green sit in seventh place in the Eastern Conference. And while it’s early, that’s already seven games back of the retooled Toronto Raptors, who just beat the Warriors in an overtime thriller last night and don’t appear to be looking behind them.
Having the Warriors’ number used to be the Celtics’ domain.
Luckily, after facing perhaps the most difficult opening stretch of any team in the league, some scheduled relief is on the way.
From Friday night’s game against a Cavaliers team that recently tried to trade for a second-year player with the basketball equivalent of Steve Blass Disease, through the weekend before Christmas, Boston plays just one team with a winning record – the Pistons, who they’ve beaten twice already.
Seems like a perfect opportunity to jump back into the top half of the East. Even being conservative, a 6-3 record over these next nine games would leave Boston four games over .500, which should be good enough to improve their position in the standings.
Another benefit to the upcoming schedule should be ample rest and practice time. You might remember such things coming at a premium last year, with the infernal London trip messing everything up. The Celtics have had three days off since Monday’s win over the Pelicans. After a tough back-to-back tonight at home and tomorrow in Minnesota, they get four more days before returning to host the Knicks next Thursday night. For a team trying to figure things out on the fly while nursing some nagging injuries, the potential value of extra time shouldn’t be discounted.
Boston desperately needs a stretch like this. They’ve already seen all of the top contenders in the East, plus the Nuggets, Thunder and Trail Blazers from the West. Sprinkled into that mix have been encouraging wins against Toronto and Milwaukee, but they’ve also dropped decisions to the Knicks and Magic at home, while fumbling away winnable matchups with the Mavs and Hornets on the road. They also enter this stretch with 4-4 record against sub-.500 teams.
Which is why there’s room for caution as well. Educated observers have criticized the team’s lack of effort at times. Sure, they can knock off the Bucks by chucking a million threes or beat the Raptors when Kyrie goes unconscious, but they haven’t exactly been grinding out wins when the shots aren’t falling. And with every team in the league giving the Celtics their best shot, they’re finding they can’t coast for three quarters and turn it on for the final 12 minutes like they did a number of times last year.
Last year is just that – last year. It was fun; it was inspiring. Boston loves a good underdog. What it wasn’t, was a season where the Celtics succeeded in their ultimate goal – to pull down another NBA championship. Unlike last year, the 2018-19 edition has the talent to make a run, but trophies aren’t handed out in the NBA like they are at your town’s recreational youth soccer banquet.
It stands to reason that, eventually, talent will win out. The Celtics will figure it out and go deep into the postseason. Provided they show up to play every night, a weak December schedule presents the opportunity to grasp a winning mindset and find the right lineup combinations to perform at the high level predicted of them.
The holiday season ushers in a bevy of formidable opponents, with games against Milwaukee, Philly and Houston within the span of a week. The Hornets, Grizzlies and Spurs aren’t exactly chopped liver, either. Come New Year’s Day, the Celtics will have played 15 more games. Maybe, by then. we’ll have a better idea of what to expect.
Sean Sylver can be heard on 98.5 The Sports Hub. You can follow him on Twitter @TheSylverFox.