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After Knicks win, it’s time for Celtics to kick into high gear

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Boston needs to show Kyrie Irving why they’re contenders before the All-Star break.

NBA: Boston Celtics at New York Knicks Andy Marlin-USA TODAY Sports

Throughout the year, the Celtics have experienced unexpected highs and lows unlike any other team. A four-game winning streak in late-October followed immediately by four losses in five games, eight straight wins in December, then three straight losses, four wins in a row in January, then three L’s. The persisting tumult and general underachievement has seemingly led Kyrie Irving to second guess his previous commitment to the franchise.

“At the end of the day, I’m going to do what is best for my career,” Irving told reporters this morning. “Obviously Boston is still at the head of that race,” he later added.

Now, the Celtics have won eight of their last nine including tonight’s 113-99 win in Madison Square Garden, where “WE WANT KYRIE” chants rang through The Mecca. With six games until the All-Star Break in Charlotte, it’s time for the Celtics to cement their case as the frontrunner in the race to sign their own franchise player.

Taking care of the Knicks, especially on a quiet night (for his standards) for Irving, is a good sign because of how the Celtics have often played down to opponents’ levels. But in the next two weeks, Boston’s schedule ramps up. The Celtics have six games — four at home — with four against playoff teams. Foes include the surging Oklahoma City Thunder, both Los Angeles teams, and the rival Philadelphia 76ers. Beating LeBron James’ Lakers Feb. 7, amid swirling rumors around Irving being open to reuniting with his former teammate in L.A., could hold more weight than just a normal win.

Win those games and the Celtics head into the All-Star Break with a nine-game winning streak, which would be the longest of Boston’s season. Beat the Thunder, Lakers and Sixers and prove that this team has turned the corner into Finals contention.

What makes this stretch of the season so crucial? Looming over all of it is Tampering Central: The All Star Break. There’s been about a hundred Woj bombs and developments over the Kyrie saga in just the past 48 hours. Imagine how many rumors there will be when Irving gets drafted to Team LeBron for the All-Star game. What about when Irving gets dinner with KD and his agent, Rich Kleiman? What are Irving and Anthony Davis whispering to each other through the necks of their jerseys?

Reassuring the Celtics are seriously in title contention in these next two weeks will do a lot to calm those rumors, whether or not they’re legitimate. If the Celtics enter the break on another disappointing losing streak, following yet another tense team meeting, Irving may spend his week off with greener pastures in mind.

Besides winning, the best way for the Celtics to prove themselves as the best destination for Irving is for their young players to step up. Jayson Tatum needs to become the consistent second scoring threat next to Irving. He’s so offensively advanced and has looked unguardable for stretches, but why hasn’t he gone for 40 yet? Jaylen Brown needs to continue to provide a spark on both ends off the bench. In 15 games in January, Brown averaged 14.1 points on 49/42/73 splits and had a 7.3 +/- in 25 minutes per game, per NBA.com. Terry Rozier needs to commit to playing hard defense and taking smarter shots, both while playing alongside Irving and as his replacement. All three — and Gordon Hayward — played well tonight, but struggled last week against the Warriors. Proving they can perform against upcoming powerhouses could help reassure Irving of Boston’s current roster talent.

The Celtics are still, rightfully, the favorites to keep Irving. They can offer him the most money, they have the best combination of young talent and assets to make trades, and they have Brad Stevens. All things considered, Irving’s mind works in mysterious ways, and he described the lead up to free agency as “college recruitment all over again.” These next two weeks may dictate whether or not he’s a recruiter or being recruited at the All-Star Break.