California trip helps Celtics curtail what ails them

Boston returns to ranks of East favorites after 3-1 finish on West coast trek

LOS ANGELES — What you look for are the vital signs, the hints and winks that say the mind and the spirit are getting the nourishment they need.

In this sense, these are the dead giveaways about the current state of the Boston Celtics:

Kyrie Irving isn’t bringing down the mood in the room anymore. Coach Brad Stevens doesn’t look like a confused coach. And the outside noise is quieter and so is the feeling of doom.

When the Celtics took the flight to California on March 4, they were thankful for the Los Angeles Lakers … or else they’d be Team Dysfunction. Seven days later, they’re returning home refreshed and frisky, almost as if they spent a week on the West Coast vacationing instead of working.

Don’t put too much weight in their 140-115 loss Monday to the LA Clippers. They were ambushed by the better-than-you-think Clippers and played without Jayson Tatum (who sat out with a sore right shoulder). Any coach or veteran player will tell you that winning the last game of a road trip might be the toughest task of an NBA schedule.

Well before last night’s buzzer sounded, the goal was already accomplished. The Celtics had righted and re-positioned themselves as one of four teams with a realistic shot at winning the East.

What we’ve learned about the Celtics is that they’re not the lost team of late February … and probably not completely free of problems either. Instead, the answer is simple: the season’s too long.

Over the course of 82 games, even contenders get face-palmed — just ask the Warriors about their 10 home losses. Yet the one thing that remains constant through it all? You’re still a contender. And that’s what the Celtics were during the low moments and still are after this 3-1 road trip. The playoffs — and nothing else — will determine the truth.

“We’ve been all over the map,” Stevens said, “like a lot of teams.”

Yes, it got shaky there for a minute if you dwell about the small picture. The Celtics are 41-27 … does that sound or look like a problem?

“We were successful on this trip,” said Irving, who stopped brooding — temporarily, anyway. “Now we go home to handle our business. We’ve got to keep it moving. Keep winning.”

The Celtics are being held, and holding themselves, to a high standard because of last season’s run to the Eastern Conference finals without Irving. This team, well coached and well-assembled, flourished minus a top-10 player. Simple mathematics say Celtics-plus-Irving equals heavyweight this season. Yet it hasn’t been so simple.

For a variety of reasons, the Celtics never managed to sit atop the East and, at times, appeared disjointed on the floor. For all his deserved applause as a young coach, Stevens looked surprisingly helpless while trying to develop cohesion, consistency and harmony. After a superb 2018 playoffs, Tatum hasn’t matched that level this season. And Gordon Hayward is still slow to return to Utah Jazz-era Hayward.

And so, the Celtics surrendered the attic in the East to the Milwaukee Bucks and slowly drifted downward. Not out of playoff position, but it felt that way.

The low point came in losing six of their eight games before this trip. They looked overmatched against the Bucks, Toronto Raptors, Houston Rockets and Portland Trail Blazers during that stretch. And didn’t the Celtics belong in that group? Chemistry was at risk and Irving handled the burden poorly within and beyond the locker room. A true leader uplifts his teammates, bravely faces questions and carries himself with great composure in tough times. Irving turned sour, seemed to deflect blame and mostly wanted nothing to do with the duties of leadership.

But give him a pass on this. Great players aren’t necessarily great leaders (and it’s probably time we stop insisting they be). Plus, the Celtics’ lackluster play then would’ve tested anyone’s patience.

“I’ve been through too many battles to hang onto the same emotions game after game,” Irving said.

Truth be told, the Celtics have just as much of a chance to win the East title as the Bucks, Raptors or Philadelphia 76ers. They’ve got a superstar in Irving and solid supporting pieces. Both Stevens and his roster are playoff tested, as few key players on the Bucks, Raptors or Sixers have gone deeper in the playoffs than the Celtics’ have.

Plus, the Celtics believe better days are coming, and that’s half the battle, regaining that confidence.

“For the most part we played great basketball on this trip,” said Jaylen Brown. “We’ve been away from home a long time. We wanted to get all four games on this trip, but it’ll be good to go home and take the next step. We’ve just got to pick it up. And you do that by winning. Winning stands out.”

Brown says the right formula is staying true to your identity, something that escaped the Celtics for a while.

“When we play with tempo and pace, it’s tough for anyone to beat us,” he said. “When we slow it down …”

Sometimes when players on a team is on the road, they can’t escape each other. They’re at the same hotel, sometimes eat at the same spot, and that can have a unifying effect. Perhaps that has been the case in California for the Celtics.

“The way we played and stayed together, it showed,” said Al Horford. “We played with a purpose and want to continue that way. It’s about consistency, and we did a lot of that on this trip.”

Half of Boston’s remaining 14 games are against teams currently .500 or better. In April, four of their five games are against teams with losing records. At 1 1/2 games out of third place — the Celtics’ ceiling — that goal could still be reached to close out 2018-19. That’s why anyone who made a final statement on the Celtics prior this trip was being too hasty.

The NBA season is long, and rough patches are expected. The Celtics, perhaps, have hit their final one. It’s probably wise, though, that they don’t believe that and fall into a trap.

“It’s not like we solved a puzzle after three (wins),” said Stevens. “We have to get better.”

Yes, they do. But same goes for any team that calls itself a contender. The pack is just too tight and the competition too stiff in the East. The Celtics had to get as far away from home as possible for an entire week to find out who they are. But road trips, as fine as they turn out to be, do have their limits.

“We need to get out of here,” Irving said. “We’ve been here long enough. No disrespect to any California native, but we need to get out.”

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Shaun Powell has covered the NBA for more than 25 years. You can e-mail him here, find his archive here and follow him on Twitter.

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