BOSTON — After a deep playoff run by a young squad missing two of its stars, the Boston Celtics were anointed contenders in the Eastern Conference — a loaded squad with a ton of potential and both Kyrie Irving and Gordon Hayward returning to the lineup.
One element has been missing so far in 2018-19, however: The energy and enthusiasm that carried the Celtics into the Eastern Conference Finals. Last year’s Celtics were a tough bunch who refused to give an inch, even against favored opponents. This year’s Celtics have looked uncertain trying to utilize all the talent on the floor at any given time.
Celtics big man Al Horford thinks the team’s recent 1-4 road trip was a reality check.
“I think that coming into the season, we were all expecting that we would kind of just take over, and we’re very dangerous, and I feel like we’ve been humbled a little bit,” Horford said after Wednesday’s dominant win over the Chicago Bulls. “We’re in a position now that we have an opportunity to start building that, and we have to do it every night. If we’re able to do that, we’ll have a chance to be special, especially committing to the defensive end.”
Horford’s comments were in line with what Irving said after the Celtics dropped to 7-6 against the Portland Trail Blazers.
“We needed this,” Irving said on Sunday. “We’re not as good as we think we are. I said it at the beginning of the season: The excitement is done. It’s real basketball now, so it’s not just about the potential of the team or where we’ll be at the end of the season. It’s right now and taking care of what presently is in front of us. We have challenges. We have barriers to get over as a team and individually. I’m going to be the most patient out of everyone. I’m not going to get too frazzled, too high or too low or stuff like that. It’s a long season. I just understand that for us to be special we just have to get through some challenges.”
After a tough schedule to start the season, Boston’s opponents ease up a bit over the next few weeks. Friday and Saturday present tough challenges against the Toronto Raptors and Utah Jazz, but several contests against lottery teams follow. If the Celtics need some comfortable looks to get their season back on track, games like Wednesday — a 111-82 victory — are likely to help.
“One of the things that this league will teach you is that just because you show up doesn’t mean you are going to win or that you can run with the game,” Horford said. “Chicago, obviously, came out fighting at the beginning and were playing at a high level. It’s just of those things that we need to establish: Continuing to play hard throughout the game and wear the opponent down. Tonight, we did that.”
That’s a mindset that could make a big difference for the Celtics, and one the road trip may have taught them.
“It probably will help us, the reality check that we might not be as good as everybody said we are at this moment,” Tatum said on Sunday. “So we gotta get back home. I know everybody wants to go back home, and we need to figure some things out.”