“Full steam ahead,” said Brad Stevens after the Boston Celtics’ 116-110 win over the Washington Wizards on Tuesday night. A fitting slogan for a Celtics team now focused exclusively on the NBA Playoffs.
With Game 82 under their belt, the Celtics finally, mercifully concluded their uneven, frustrating regular season. They finished with a record of 49-33, doubtless a disappointing total for a team saddled with vastly greater expectations before the season began. As Stevens asserted after the game, though, that’s in the past — the only thing that matters now is the postseason.
Full steam ahead.
Tuesday’s comeback victory was, of course, a nice sight. Most wins tend to be. Absent most of the team’s primary contributors, the Celtics rode a cadre of Maine Red Claws -- R.J. Hunter, P.J. Dozier, Robert Williams -- to a triumph over a weary Wizards roster. Jaylen Brown impressed during a short stint in his second game back from back spasms, and Terry Rozier looked free and easy on his way to leading all scorers with 21 points in just 24 minutes. From there, they let the less experienced Celtics bring it home. Put simply, it was fun.
“That was a fun game, from the standpoint of different guys getting to step up,” said Stevens. Added Rozier: “That was my funnest game of the year.”
And yet, more than anything, the win felt like a formality. Perhaps, a final roadblock. The Celtics have talked at length in recent weeks about looking ahead to the playoffs, even as their post-All Star Break play has frequently failed to inspire. Set in stone as the fourth seed in the Eastern Conference, the lion’s share of the team’s rotation didn’t even make the trip to Washington D.C. The regular season has been long and tumultuous, and this team is clearly quite ready for what comes next.
Stevens, ostensibly, disagrees. “I kinda stay day-to-day, and I’m not really into wishing today away and rushing to get somewhere,” he explained. “It takes time to come together as a team and see how good you can be.”
Regardless of viewpoint, the Celtics have now, really, gotten there. The regular season is over, and the postseason is about to begin. All of the drama and frustration of this regular season has been washed away -- the Celtics are, literally and metaphorically, 0-0 again.
What matters now is Indiana, a team that the Celtics have undoubtedly outplayed this season. They’re 3-1 against the Pacers thus far, with the lone loss coming on an incredible game-winner from a player whose services Indiana won’t enjoy in the postseason: Victor Oladipo. Boston triumphed over Indiana twice in just the past two weeks: one, a hard-fought 114-112 nail-biter in Boston, and another, a commanding 117-97 waltz in Indiana. With the fourth seed in hand, they’ll also enjoy valuable home court advantage for the series.
Yet, that “0-0 reset” works both ways. The Celtics cannot rest on the laurels of their regular season conquering of Indiana. The Pacers are certainly no slouches, and they’ve seen a lot of the Celtics in recent weeks — an advantage for any coaching staff. They’ve also overcome a massive amount of adversity in the wake of Oladipo’s injury, reinventing themselves as a young, collaborative, defensive-minded squad -- one that does not feel entirely dissimilar from last year’s notoriously underestimated Celtics. This is a team that can’t be taken lightly.
“We need to prepare to play very well against Indiana,” said Stevens. “That’s the bottom line. One of the things about the playoffs is that you know your opponent, you know who you have to prepare for and play against. We have to be extremely locked-in, we have to be detail-oriented. We have to do all the things that really good teams do.”
Everybody knows this Celtics team has talent. Kyrie Irving is an exceptionally accomplished playoff performer, owner of one of the most iconic shots in the history of the sport. Al Horford has never missed the playoffs in his NBA career. Gordon Hayward saw playoff success with the Utah Jazz, and has finally started to look like “Old G” in recent weeks. Rozier, Brown and Jayson Tatum were the architects of last season’s run to the Eastern Conference Finals. Nobody on this team has reason to be afraid of the spotlight, because they’ve all already flourished under it.
And yet, there are still things these players all need to prove. Irving has never done it without LeBron. Horford could never conquer LeBron. Hayward has only appeared in the postseason twice. Rozier, Brown and Tatum have all regressed in one regard or another during their encore seasons. And that’s without mentioning the most pressing concern of them all: this team has seldom actually played to its potential when all these pieces were on the court, healthy, together.
Collectively, they just haven’t proven anything yet.
Everyone involved can sense this team’s potential -- and at the same time, what they still have left to achieve. “We’ve had our moments. I’m not sure we’ve peaked, which I guess is a good thing,” elaborated Stevens. Added Rozier: “This season hasn’t been fun, personally. I know there are better things to come. I know we’re going to have a great playoff push, and I’m ready.”
In other words, it’s time for the 2018-19 Boston Celtics to define themselves. Any outcome appears within the realm of possibility, and how the coming weeks play out will be the definitive, final word on who these Celtics actually are. Win the East -- or, heaven forbid, a title -- and this season will likely be redeemed. Lose in the first round, and it will become one of the most hated seasons in recent Boston sports memory. Anything in the middle will feel like wasted potential.
For weeks, the Celtics have been chomping at the bit for the playoffs to begin. Now, they’ve gotten their wish. They’re 0-0, once again. What happens next is up to them.
Full steam ahead.