Quick, think of the 3 most memorable things that happened last season (2017-18). To me, they would have to be 1) Gordon Hayward getting hurt in the first game, 2) Kyrie Irving getting hurt and missing the playoffs, and 3) the long and inspiring playoff run without those two.
Those are the things that stand out and define what last year’s team was all about. When Hayward went down, they immediately responded by rallying together and going on a long playoff run. When Irving went out, they were counted out by the world, but refused to go gentle into that good night.
This year’s trials are a lot more self-inflicted and the obstacles are more psychological than physical. There have been the usual ups and downs of an NBA season (though sometimes seems that the lows were felt more particularly because of the high expectations).
Still, how we look back on this year will be determined entirely upon something that hasn’t happened yet. The playoffs are the thing wherein we’ll define the identity of the team.
The players know it too (and feel it in their bones). Kyrie has been talking about the playoffs all season long. Here’s a recent quote from Jaylen Brown.
“I don’t really know what to say at this point,” Brown said. “It is what it is. We’re, what, 60-something games in? I’m just focused on getting to this year’s playoffs.
”Last year was last year. I’m just focused on what’s ahead of me, not what is behind me.”
Think about it, if the Celtics win the NBA Championship, this season will be painted in romantic style as a story of triumph over internal struggles. Everyone will say that they knew all along what this team was capable of, but they needed the challenge and focus of the playoffs to maximize their cohesion.
Of course if they get bounced in the first round, every one of Kyrie’s quotes from the past year is going to be regurgitated and psychoanalyzed through the lens of what happened at the end. Everyone will say that they knew all along that this team was headed for disaster. That’s how this works.
Odds tend to favor some kind of middle ground between those polar opposites. The Celtics may not reach the NBA Finals, but if they can make a good showing through the Eastern Conference Finals, there’s still room to hope for a brighter future ahead. Anything less than that will likely spark a fearful foreboding in the fanbase with eyes on yet another critical summer.
But we’re still roughly a month away from knowing how the next act will play out and the Celtics have to play out the schedule. There will be times when it looks like they are waiting for the page to turn, sometimes in the middle of turning the ball over. There will be times when they realize that they need to be clicking on all cylinders for the playoffs and reflect that in their play. Sometimes both sides of their split personality will show up in the same game (as it did against the Kings).
None of this is to say that none of the regular season games “matter.” The journey is sometimes more important than the destination. Still, it remains to be seen how that journey is remembered and a lot of that will depend on where the journey ends.