Kyrie Irving’s body sagged after the bounce pass from Celtics teammate Marcus Morris skidded several feet outside his reach Tuesday night. Morris couldn’t believe it either, slumping over as he watched what could have been an easy assisted 3-pointer instead become Boston’s sixth of 10 first-half turnovers.
For anyone who has watched the increasingly unhappy Celtics over the past few months, it was a familiar sight.
The careless exchange — and immediate reactions to it — came amid a big Raptors run in Toronto's 118-95 thumping of Boston (37-24). Those are the types of moments that have made the season so excruciating for the Celtics and have cast doubt on the organization's direction. Two years and a flurry of moves after losing in the 2017 Eastern Conference finals in five games to the Cavaliers, it’s unclear whether general manager Danny Ainge's roster has gotten any closer to winning a championship.
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In fact, Boston is in a similar place in many respects. It’s projected to make another deep playoff run but not expected to claim a title. It's filled with elite talent but still eyeing better players elsewhere in the league.
In 2016-17, Boston had one real Eastern Conference foe in Cleveland; now it has t
Two years ago, the Celtics were led by an MVP-caliber point guard (Isaiah Thomas) and Al Horford, and they surrounded that duo with a deep cast of role players. Boston actively courted impending free agent Gordon Hayward and hoped to add other stars with the help of a stockpile of draft picks.
This year’s version of the team has paired a different star point guard (Kyrie Irving) with Al Horford, and a new group of role players has given coach Brad Stevens sufficient depth. Jayson Tatum is almost certainly a better third piece than anyone on the Celtics two years ago. But Irving can leave as a free agent this offseason — Thomas still had another year of team control in the previous iteration of the Celtics — and Boston no longer has the same draft pick arsenal. That means, in order to acquire another star (such as Anthony Davis), it might need to part with Tatum and remove a key part of what has made the team so promising at times this season.
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Plus, Horford is now 32, his prime years slipping away as this franchise treads water.
It isn’t entirely surprising, then, when shoulders slump, teammates exchange harsh words in timeouts or a blank-faced Marcus Smart sits in apparent shock on the bench, shirt pulled up over his mouth after witnessing his teammates let Raptors forward Pascal Siakam dribble the length of the floor for a slam to put Toronto up 26 points in the third quarter.
There’s a lot at stake, and unlike teams that have already won a title or teams still unquestionably on the rise, it’s becoming more likely with each Celtics clunker that this dysfunctional roller coaster is actually their peak.