By Sean Sylver, 98.5 The Sports Hub
It was like a Hollywood movie.
Just when you thought it couldn’t get any worse for the 2019 Celtics, they hauled you back in.
They’d dumped five of six coming out of the All-Star break, their locker room riddled with the old Pat Riley “Disease of Me,” which in its modern form causes superstars to fancy themselves as CEOs and young guns to think 79 points in Game 7 against LeBron is worthy of a t-shirt. Fans were convinced Kyrie Irving was ready to dump Boston for either an old flame (the Lakers) or a new one who’d undergone several rounds of cosmetic surgery (the Knicks). Unlike previous editions, this team was neither consistently entertaining nor likable, with all of the progress of the last few years seemingly poised to evaporate. We’d bought the t-shirts and the hype when a wide-open Eastern Conference and a national media consensus signaled the change from underdogs to frontrunners. But 64 games in, it was clear we had no idea what we were watching or what was coming next.
But then, the Celtics climbed aboard an airplane for their longest flight of the season. Self-proclaimed leader Kyrie Irving finally found his footing in the role at 30,000 feet, belting karaoke classics to the delight of a captive audience and playing Uno with the zeal of a middle schooler during a rainy recess. Irving’s multi-task mastery approached that of Santa Claus for the altitude, as he reportedly had conversations with every single player and coach over a five-hour period, a timeframe during which most of us tap out in the midst of the safety demonstration and proceed to challenge John Lackey for fly-catching supremacy.
The plane ride was destined to go down in franchise history with the “Ubuntu” Celtics’ 2007 trip to Italy. Or any number of vaunted players-only meetings that have galvanized many a franchise throughout sporting lore.
Who cares if Irving’s leadership technique had to that point resembled a disjointed “Macho Man” Randy Savage promo?
“Right there. The fork in the road. I said go right, Elizabeth said go left. I went right! And then – and then, I understood what the situation was. I went over that one bridge, yeah. And then, when I crossed that bridge, I found out that I was on the right side. And I said Elizabeth, follow me – yeah! Because I’m going straight to the top!”
The plane ride was going to be the defining moment of the championship DVD. Three consecutive wins followed.
Irving put his stamp on the Warriors romp early before ceding the spotlight to an extremely convincing Gordon Hayward impersonator. Hayward then drained the game-winner in a lucky escape from Sacramento. Great teams need a little luck. Then, Irving showed up big brother LeBron on his home floor, dropping 30 points in another rout.
The stage was set for the Green to go 4-0 on the West Coast for the second consecutive year.
And then – and then, they let up 140 against the Clippers, a total not seen by a Celtics opponent since Dino Radja defended the low post.
Following the boat race at Staples Center, the C’s returned home and found themselves buried under 38 first quarter points from the Kings, a youthful team primed to expose Boston’s recent lack of transition defense. On Sunday, they ceded a 25-point lead to the lowly Atlanta Hawks, bringing the starters back out for meaningful fourth quarter minutes.
They won both games. That’s five of six since the plane ride.
The 2019 Celtics have so far defied the narrative, which means they’ll probably also fail to follow the convenient post-plane ride script which would’ve made for a great Uncle Drew 2. Even in victory, they’re exasperating, and now 70 games into the season, we still don’t know what to expect. Nor will the final 12 contests provide any more than a hint to that end. While it’s clear this year’s Celtics have the potential to accomplish more than any other Brad Stevens team to this point, it’s unclear if they actually will.
Meanwhile, the spark plug of those plucky Celtics teams of the past (you know, the ones we all loved and praised), Isaiah Thomas, has been removed from the rotation in Denver. He returns to the Garden with the Nuggets Monday night.
The NBA is a cruel world. The best defense is to steel yourself with elite talent, cheap young guys and role players and hope it blends. While the taste test continues for Boston, one can only hope it reaches peak flavor three weeks from now. Danny Ainge dropped the Hoosiers routine, signed the two biggest free agents in team history, and traded for a superstar with an eye on a ring, all while grooming the draft picks he pilfered from Brooklyn six years ago. This is their best shot – at least until the Anthony Davis drama plays out.
So while the plane ride may not have fixed everything on the court, let’s hope it was a win for team chemistry, and that they’re still a sleeping giant for whom a switch can be flipped, just like that.
“Straight to the top!”
Sean Sylver can be heard on 98.5 The Sports Hub. You can follow him on Twitter @TheSylverFox.