Posted by: Mike Cornelius | February 28, 2019

Can Either Boston Or L.A. Flip A Switch?

When we last looked in on the Boston Celtics back in the early days of December, the Green were midway through what would eventually become an eight-game winning streak that lifted the team’s record and sent it surging up the Eastern Conference standings after a middling 10-10 start. While it was noted in this space that Boston’s run was not exactly through the NBA’s elite, the wins succeeded in calming a fan base that had grown increasingly nervous through the first six weeks of the season.

But now that basketball’s regular season has reached its opposite bookend, with six weeks remaining, it looks increasingly like that earlier anxiety was entirely justified. Wednesday night the Celtics dropped their fourth straight game and sixth in the last eight, falling to the Portland Trailblazers in TD Garden by a score of 97-92. The defeat came one night after a double-digit thrashing by the Toronto Raptors – a game in which Boston trailed by as many as thirty – which followed losses last week to the Milwaukee Bucks and the dreadful Chicago Bulls, making Boston winless since the All-Star break.

Even with that increasingly distant and apparently anomalous winning streak boosting their record, the Celtics sit fifth in the Conference and closer to ninth place and an early start to the offseason than to the top of the standings and home court advantage for the playoffs. When the team’s scuffling play through October and November had pundits and fans wondering aloud what was wrong, guard Terry Rozier suggested that “everyone can shut up, because everyone can be very annoying.” In a similar vein, after a lackluster performance by the rest of the roster wasted his own thirty-seven-point night and gave the Bulls just their sixteenth win of the season, Kyrie Irving said he couldn’t “see anyone beating” the Celtics in a best-of-seven playoff series.

By now there are plenty of fans in New England who upon hearing Irving’s comment likely responded by suggesting that the superstar schedule an eye exam. Players on underperforming teams often claim that they will be able to “flip a switch” when the postseason starts and raise their game to the level that had been expected all season long. While that does happen on occasion, the more common outcome is that the promise proves empty. If the current standings hold, the Celtics will need to get by a sharply improved Philadelphia squad in the first round, most likely followed by Raptors and the Bucks in order to reach the Finals. To this point in the regular season Toronto and Milwaukee have won eight and ten more games than Boston respectively. Were it not for those eight consecutive wins in November and December, the Celtics’ record would barely be above .500.

When Gordon Hayward was lost for the year just minutes into last season’s first game, expectations for the Celtics sank. But young players like Jason Tatum and Jaylen Brown stepped up, and head coach Brad Stevens instilled a strong work ethic in his team. Even when Irving was lost to injury at the end of the year, the cohesive Celtics took Cleveland to Game 7 of the Conference Finals before finally bowing out.

With Irving healthy and Hayward back, this year’s expectations were sky-high. But Hayward has often seemed tentative, as if he doesn’t trust his surgically repaired left leg, and Brown has regressed. Most critically, a fair amount of drama has seeped into Boston’s locker room, most of it around Irving’s plans for the future. After telling fans at an off-season event “if you guys will have me back, I plan on re-signing here next year,” he backed off that commitment, finally saying at the beginning of February, “I’m going to do what is best for my career.” General manager Danny Ainge has tried to defuse the tension caused by Irving’s waffling, but the tight team spirit that helped Boston overachieve last year has long since dissipated.

At least Celtics fans can remain reasonably confident that their heroes will get the chance to show whether they can prove Irving right about the playoffs. Based on both history and this year’s standings in the East, any record above .500 should be good enough to qualify for the postseason. Barring a total collapse Boston should be able to pass that admittedly low bar, thanks in part to a remaining schedule that includes seven games against some of the league’s worst teams.

Not so fortunate are the faithful of the Celtics’ greatest historical rival, the Los Angeles Lakers. On the December day that Boston won its eighth straight contest and climbed to 18-10, the Lakers and their new leader LeBron James were almost the Celtics equal, with a record of 17-11, good for a tie for fourth place in the Western Conference.

If Boston’s play since that date has been indifferent, L.A.’s has more often been dreadful. Even with a hard-fought win over the rather sad league representative from New Orleans on Wednesday, the Lakers are now at 30-31, three games adrift of the San Antonio Spurs for the last postseason ticket in the West.

Other than some devoted fans with season tickets at the Staples Center, few expected the Lakers to seriously contend in LeBron’s first season in L.A. That giddy mid-December record was almost certainly too good to be true. But a spot in the playoffs was a reasonable goal, so the descent since then has been equally unexpected. It was brought on in part by James missing multiple games with a groin injury, and by the uneven play of Rajon Rondo, who was brought on to be, along with James, a veteran presence helping a collection of very young players to grow.

In Cleveland, Miami, and Cleveland again, teams led by James have gone to the playoffs for thirteen straight seasons. It is hard for many fans to imagine the NBA playoffs without King James. But with dramatically less room for error than the Celtics, the Lakers have a decidedly tougher schedule, and there’s a very real chance that the hard to imagine may soon be reality.

LeBron James has proven himself to be one of those players who can, in fact, flip a switch when circumstances demand. Whether at age thirty-four he can do so again, and whether he taught Kyrie Irving that particular magic trick during their time together in Cleveland, will likely tell this season’s tale for both the Lakers and the Celtics.

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