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The Celtics Don’t Have an Identity—but Bubble Eastern Conference Teams Might

Ten East teams played on Wednesday night, and though the conference’s playoff picture looks the same as it did on Tuesday, momentum may be changing heading into the final quarter of the season

NBA: Portland Trail Blazers at Boston Celtics David Butler II-USA TODAY Sports

Through about 60 games in the 2018-19 season, the Eastern Conference has been the NBA’s middle child. Its best teams aren’t as evolved as the two-time defending champion Warriors, and its bubble teams aren’t as youthful as Western Conference hopefuls like the Kings, Wolves, and Lakers. All of the East’s playoff-eligible teams seem to fall somewhere in between. And the Celtics—who, after their 97-92 home loss to the Trail Blazers on Wednesday, have dropped a season-high four straight games—are in the middle of that middle. Boston currently holds the fifth seed in the conference but can’t decide which identity—young and hungry, like last year, or superteam, like last year was supposed to be—suits them.

So for now, Boston’s rolling without an identity. More than “talented” or “selfless” or even “defensive-minded,” the Celtics are best described as “in trouble”—even if Kyrie Irving disagrees. After the Portland loss, Irving expressed confidence in his team: “I don’t think anybody in the Eastern Conference can compete with us when we’re playing at the high level we know we’re supposed to be playing at.” Three days earlier, Irving told reporters that Boston will “be fine … because I’m here.” This, of course, followed his interview with ESPN last week, when he said that Boston has “a bunch of young men in our locker room who feel they’re capable of doing a lot more than they’re doing.” That group—which includes Jayson Tatum, Jaylen Brown, and Irving’s backup, Terry Rozier, the same young men who led the Celtics to the Eastern Conference finals last year without Irving or Gordon Hayward—has struggled with its minimized role all season. That’s created a divide that Irving isn’t helping to bridge.

Two days before facing the Blazers, the Celtics fumbled an easy opportunity to get back on track against the lowly Bulls. Instead of righting the ship, Boston lost 126-116 in Chicago as Lauri Markkanen and Zach LaVine combined for 77 points against the Celtics’ once impenetrable defense. In a bubble, taking an L from Portland was nowhere as mentally defeating; Damian Lillard and Co. are worthy, non-tanking opponents with postseason aspirations, and the contest was within three points with 25 seconds to go. But in the context of the losing streak, player rotations and Irving’s mind games are just more open-ended questions for a roster that desperately needs an answer. And some relief. And for Irving to maybe, just maybe, skip a postgame interview.

Farther down the conference standings, Charlotte’s slide has been quieter. Kemba Walker is no Kyrie Irving in that aspect. But for a couple of possessions on Wednesday night against the Rockets, he did look like James Harden:

Walker finished with a more Hardenesque point total than the man himself in the Hornets’ 118-113 loss, recording 35 points, four assists, four rebounds, and five steals. Twenty-seven of his points came in the first half, before Rockets coach Mike D’Antoni switched Chris Paul onto him and slowed him down over the game’s final two quarters. Walker shot like the season was at stake—which, frankly, it is. Charlotte entered and left Wednesday night’s game holding the eighth seed in the East, but the team has lost seven of its last 10 games, including the three most recent, and has the sixth-toughest remaining schedule in the league (including, in six games, the Rockets again).

There wasn’t any movement in the Eastern Conference standings Wednesday night, despite 10 teams having games, but there was some momentum shifting below the surface. The Wizards beat the Nets 125-116, and Bradley Beal hit the 30-point mark for the sixth time over his past eight games, sealing the best month of his career and putting Washington, whose roster could easily be confused as one put together to tank, within three games of Charlotte and the eighth seed. And after the retiring Dwyane Wade decided to son the Warriors one last time with a buzzer-beater, edging out Golden State for a 126-125 win, the Heat are only a half-game out of a playoff spot:

Wade’s shot drew more attention than Miami—or Charlotte or Washington for that matter—has had in weeks. Regard for highly flawed teams tends to be reserved for Western Conference squads. The annual exceptions over the past few years have been LeBron James’s disfigured rosters; now that he’s taken those problems to the West Coast, the highly-flawed-despite-being-carefully-built Celtics have filled that void. Though Irving wishes that wasn’t the case: “I can’t wait,” he said postgame Wednesday, “for all this other BS about the regular season, keep getting better, talking over and over again about what we can do to keep getting better playing in the regular season. … I just want to be at the highest level playing and that’s what I’m here for.” But Boston still has 20 games left in the regular season, and unless the Celtics turn things around, the playoffs he can’t wait to reach will be short-lived.