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Same tune, different city: an uneven performance against Utah and a chance turn the tide in Portland

Putting the Celtics’ early season middle of the road-ness into perspective

NBA: Boston Celtics at Utah Jazz Russ Isabella-USA TODAY Sports

It seemed almost fated that Kyrie’s planned absence would coincide with Hayward’s delayed return to Utah. Yes, it was a bummer that we would be deprived the next chapter in Kyrie’s Scorched Earth Tour, but absence makes the heart grow fonder. (Stevens later confirmed that the serial that’s captivated the league will be back on air tonight when the Celtics face off against the Trailblazers.) But it almost seemed like a respectful bow given the solemnity of the night’s proceedings, in which Hayward was to be the clear center of attention; he cleaned up nice in a sleek all black look for the occasion (Utah barber > Boston barber), was modestly celebrated by his old team and subsequently desecrated by a sour fan base.

Hayward was back at the Vivint Smart Home Arena, and as familiar as that must have felt, the visiting team locker room was a first for him. Everything’s the same, yet strangely different. And that applies to more than his little memento of a stop on the Celtics’ West Coast trip.

For starters, the Celtics were on almost the exact same road trip this time last spring, facing Utah, Sacramento, Phoenix and Portland. This year’s trip added a nasty wrinkle, pitting the Celtics against the towering Nuggets instead of the surging Kings -- why not raise the bar on a team that was meant to down most of its opponents?

Last time these two teams faced off, forgotten Celtics great, Greg Monroe, led the team with rebounds (8) and assists (4) en route to a 97-94 Celtics win and the team re-establishing their confidence after their ceiling had been downgraded due to Irving’s recurring knee troubles. Tatum mentioned this road trip on the Bill Simmons podcast in August, saying it was this crucial stretch of play-in wins that convinced the Celtics that they’d put up a “closed” sign on the season prematurely. Winning 6 straight put them back in the conversation and reassured them that they had ample time to figure out life after Kyrie and position themselves for a nice little playoff run. They had belief on their side.

NBA: Boston Celtics at Utah Jazz Russ Isabella-USA TODAY Sports

The Jazz game flashed some of those familiar ingredients: Terry Rozier re-discovering what made him so scary in the first place, flying off screens and into his three point shooting motion to break the seal yesterday with the velocity and pop of a player who refuses to be a victim of circumstance. There was the ambitious Jaylen Brown bounce pass that sailed the distance to a streaking Hayward for the agile catch and finish on the break followed by Hayward switching roles and delivering a perfect threading bounce pass past Gobert’s looming arms to Horford for the dunk in traffic for a decisive 10-2 start. (I won’t mention how the shots that the Jazz made early (Ingles shaking off Hayward for a sweeping finish in the lane, one of three first quarter Gobert dunks) and the ones that they missed in that same opening sequence (open Rubio mid-range Js and a makeable three by Mitchell) were precisely the looks that took the Celtics down later in the game). Old friend, Jae Crowder, even turned his ALL CAPS gripes about the Celtics’ fan base’s audacity at making their affections known to then-Jazz Hayward while he was still donning green into a back breaking three point shot to seal the game, one of four he would make on the night.

Every time Hayward handled the ball was an opportunity for fans to voice their displeasure, a collective groan that represented the pain of sticking with Hayward’s early James and the Giant Peach hit-or-miss years all the way through his muscular All-Star transformation only to lose him so close to his peak.

Last summer, while fans at Summer League were fretting their homegrown star would leave, they were simultaneously talking themselves into Donovan Mitchell’s instant stardom, a salve that could disinfect the wound from Hayward’s departure faster than anyone thought possible. This narrative was of course playing out in parallel to the Tatum-Fultz switched-at-birth drama.

The Mitchell-Tatum Rookie of the Year race was the one that ended up emerging as one of the most exciting developments of the NBA season. It kept people talking long after the last votes had trickled in -- with both Tatum and Mitchell elevating their respective teams with uncanny playoff leadership that made usual predictions about a rookie’s role on a competitive team look like they were drawn up by a drunk man asked to walk in a straight line. And true to their rookie form, they both notched 21 points despite a shaky start to the year with Mitchell finishing on a high note while a pair of layups put a damper on Tatum’s outing.

The Celtics go into Portland having lost three of their last four and having had to exert a conspicuous amount of energy to edge out a paltry opponent in the Suns.

A large part of the Celtics fan base is toggling back and forth between this and last year, using the 2017-2018 team’s trajectory as a compass of sorts for this year’s murky game-to-game terrain. History is great in that way that it allows you to flip through its pages and enjoy the highs while skipping the lows. This season has been a different story: a tense watching of the first twelves games given that none of us can really see beyond the bend. Put it this way: it’s been way less fun than expected.

A few trends have kept up. Last year’s team will go down in history as the team that had no business doing what it did and did it in spectacular fashion with impressive streaks and ambitious comebacks. Whether for masochistic enjoyment or other unknown reasons, the 2017-2018 Celtics loved a good letdown of a first half, followed by a roaring comeback, as if they got part of their power from feeding on people’s surprise.

Who can forget that famed Mavericks game, which would be their last on that furious 16-game winning streak, and how they’d dug themselves a grave before Kyrie Irving took a fourth quarter 13-point deficit and turned it into a stunning 47 point overtime performance after another limping start to his season.

Same as this year, we’ve been witnesses to the Kyrie Awakening: an early stretch of abject mediocrity to first anesthetize our expectations, followed by magically elating performances most can’t even dream of.

The problem is that this year’s team came with an outline and firm presets with no patience for meandering.

Friday’s game gave us Kung Fu Baynes (reminiscent of one of my favorite early childhood heroes), a pair of absolutely gravity defying Rozier rebounds and an NFL-worthy save with his toe inside the line before slamming the ball off a pair of unsuspecting Jazz players to retain possession, and more gorgeous no-look pinhole passes from Smart, whose confidence as a legitimate PG in this league grows every year. Brown finally consummated a stare-down worthy dunk on Gobert to atone for whatever it was he did to Embiid on Opening Night and Tatum figured that if Morris could heed to Steven’s plea take the ball inside more, then so could he.

But then we got the same intermittent stagnation specials and the newfound defensive snafus that seem to be gifting one player after another a nightly opportunity to go off for a career night (in this case Ingles, but see also: Murray, Jamal and big nights from Oladipo and Booker along the way).

And somehow rooting for this team to dig themselves out of a hole they’ve put themselves in or recovering after squandering a big lead just isn’t as thrilling as it was in previous years. Nor is it amusing that solid performances are only assembled in either/or instead of both/and fashion.

Last year’s win in Utah was a statement. Friday’s periodic weaknesses felt tied to something slightly more symptomatic than mere inconsistent November basketball, but that may be November angst speaking. Everything will be OK come April.

But will OK be enough for the Celtics to clear the East? The Celtics path to the Finals just got steeper with Jimmy Butler’s surprise trade to the 76ers. The 76ers lost a player whose reputation as a sharpshooting defensive clamp didn’t hold up against the Celtics, and a big man who did damage inside but never fully lived up to his promise as a consistent threat worthy of Horford’s full attention on the perimeter. More teams are rising to meet the challenge that the cratering Cavs have yielded to the rest of the conference. It can’t get much better than this (if only the Celtics can figure out their own roster riddles; they’ve already lost the mantle of the most complete team to the Raptors).

With Irving rejoining the team for tonight’s bout, is it fair to wonder if the Celtics are more dependent on Irving than they’d hoped to be? The seesaw of inconsistencies and glimmers of talent continue to play themselves out on a nightly basis with new pimples coming to the surface. That drama was once the element that fed a fan base; this year, that same intrigue seems to be causing more weariness than anything else.

Though that’s fair, perhaps it’s possible to enjoy the 2018-2019 season for what it’s been. A strange vision quest that will dazzle, irritate, puzzle -- the requisite 82-game petri dish that will eventually deliver a Celtics team that’s part what we had imagined, and part the circuitous, alternatingly breathtaking, and breath-holding spectacle that we once appreciated.

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