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Celtics establish themselves as contenders out West

Another year, another 3-1 road trip. But this one feels real.

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

In early-March of 2019, the Boston Celtics went west as a broken team in need of anything that could make them feel good. They had lost five of their last six and seven of their last 10 at the time.

That Celtics team showed up in Oakland to play the vaunted Warriors and blasted Golden State by 33 points. They followed it up with wins over the Kings and Lakers. Following the trip, stories came out about how that cross-country flight was a bonding experience that fixed everything that had ailed Boston.

Even a four-game losing streak later in the month didn’t really matter. We all believed those Celtics were contenders. By early-May, those dreams were crushed as Boston fell apart against Milwaukee in the second round of the Eastern Conference playoffs. It all went south faster than a blind date with a 30-something that still lives at home with mom and dad.

In about a million ways, this season feels different. Jayson Tatum has made the leap. Jaylen Brown has too, just not quite as in-your-face as Tatum. Gordon Hayward has largely been healthy and productive. And Kemba Walker has shown up with a smile on his face while he assassinates defenders on the court.

Against the Jazz there were a couple of plays that really stood out. In the third quarter, Enes Kanter went to the post on back-to-back plays. The entire Boston bench got on their feet and cheered him on to make the defender pay. Kanter scored the first time and passed out the second time. Then on the third trip, he got a tip-in and pointed at the bench with a fist pump and a smile.

Then in the fourth quarter, Marcus Smart took over. He hit three straight three-pointers. You could feel the heat check launch was coming. In a rare moment of restraint, Smart instead dimed up Kanter underneath. The player who loved that stretch the most? Walker. He was up screaming and yelling and flashing that huge grin.

Late in the game, the Celtics pulled away from the Jazz behind some big shot-making from Tatum, Brown and former Utah player Hayward. It was the second-straight night Boston made it a blowout in the fourth quarter. And this time around it happened on a back-to-back.

This trip started with a 10-point win over Minnesota. Following that, the Celtics lost a two-point heartbreaker at the Lakers. In that game, Tatum went toe-to-toe with Lebron James and showed the world that’s become a star. In the end, James beat Boston once again. On a fadeaway jumper over basically perfect defense from Brown. But, given that the Celtics played without Walker, it was no shame to lose to the Lakers in a close one on the road.

Two days later, Boston traveled up to Portland and took care of business. Sure, the Trail Blazers are really banged-up with Damian Lillard, but the Celtics turned that one into a blowout by the end of the fourth quarter. The rest they stole there clearly helped on Wednesday night, as Boston ran away from Utah at the end of the game.

A year ago, we thought a 3-1 West Coast trip fixed the Celtics. It re-established them as contenders in our minds. That was fool’s gold. Maybe that now infamous plane ride treated a few symptoms, but the underlying disease ended up killing Boston’s season.

This year? Another 3-1 West Coast swing. But this Celtics team didn’t need any sort of fixing. This time around it was about establishing themselves as real contenders. Three double-digit wins and a two-point loss against one of the NBA’s best teams, all without Kemba Walker? Mission accomplished.

Last year we thought the Celtics were fixed and we thought they were contenders. This time around, the Celtics aren’t broken and we know they are contenders. Once again: what a difference a year makes.

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