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C’s Need to Make Most of Mulligan

April 9, 2019

By Steve Bulpett

Boston Herald

WASHINGTON -- They will not reach the 50-win mark.

Roll that one around your head for a second. The Celtic juggernaut that was shown past the velvet ropes and into the NBA championship series by preseason pundits -- Eastern Conference? We don’t need no stinking Eastern Conference -- won’t get to a mile marker it was thought would be passed going 80 miles an hour on the way to 60-something victories.

The Celts’ victory lap of a regular season, the mere warmup for the run at glory, turned into a trip with fits and starts, several trips to the mechanics and even a couple of stops to see the basketball psychiatrist.

There is still one game left on the Opening 82, tonight’s affair that has the chance to make early October exhibition games look like Game 7 in June. The Wizards are angling for lottery position, while the Celts are in full load management, “let’s not get anyone else hurt” mode in preparation for this weekend’s first-round series against Indiana.

Apparently, the quest for a 49th win isn’t exactly a motivating factor.

What should, however, get the Celtics going at this point is the fact they have before them the opportunity for a grand hoop mulligan. What happens now -- well, after Tuesday’s game -- can put all the unmet expectations for the regular season so far into the rearview mirror as to not be seen with the naked eye. If they play the right way.

Continue the inconsistencies we’ve seen the last six months, and people will shake their head at this team as it slinks toward a playoff exit.

Play unselfishly and with heart, and all will be forgiven. Even the home losses to the Knicks and Phoenix and blowing leads of 18 and 28 points in consecutive Garden games to the Lakers and Clippers in February.

“Definitely it won’t matter,” said Marcus Morris. “There were a lot of ups and downs this season, but we’re happy with where we’re at, and we’re ready.

“The season’s behind us now. There’s nothing we can go back and do. It’s time to move on and get ready for the playoffs.”

When Kyrie Irving said he could see the light in the distance, it was this: the postseason. And with just eight series to attract attention now, the light that shines on the Celtics will be much brighter. Their trespasses rated relatively little national mention throughout the season. Oh, sure, there were a few “what’s wrong with the Celtics?” discussions, and Irving swung open the door to speculation about his future when, after pledging allegiance to the C’s in October, he responded to a question about his future with “Ask me July 1st.”

But more they have been given a fairly wide berth as bigger NBA stories took over.

Now the Celtics get a second chance to write their story. They can be a tale of perseverance and promise finally fulfilled. Or they can be a cautionary example of wasted talent.

Not all teams/players get this chance. The Celts seem to know this, and they’re grateful.

“It should be a great opportunity for us,” said Jaylen Brown, who was still icing his back after returning for Sunday’s game.

“We’re still here. We’re starting the playoffs, and I’m still taking us. We’ve been up and down all year, but we kept fighting. We didn’t throw in the towel. Now it’s go time. We want everybody to play their best version of themselves, play the best basketball we can. And I think when we get going, it’s going to be tough for any team to beat us in seven.

“We don’t really got time to be thinking about the past. It’s the playoffs. Everybody wants to win. Everybody’s here to win. That’s what we’ve got to do. Leave it all on the court. It’s make or break time.”

According to Morris, the Celtics are in a better frame of game to do some making. His view is sought, because he was the one who, after the aforementioned loss to the Clippers, said the team wasn’t competing hard enough or having any fun. “I look at us and I just see a bunch of individuals,” he told the press gathering that night.

Asked in a more private conversation whether he’s feeling better about this team now,” Morris said, “Yeah... A lot better.”

He traces part of it to what transpired in the talk the players had among themselves after losing badly at home to San Antonio. Marcus Smart revealed the result of the conversation to the Herald two weeks ago. “I think we’re all on the same page now,” he was quoted here as saying. “We came to an agreement that we’re all going to give everything we have for one another and try to finish this season off the right way and, you know, play the right way.”

While Al Horford said he wouldn’t read anything too deep into what went on when the dressing room remained closed beyond the NBA-allotted cooling off period that night, Morris believes some good emerged.

“I think there were some understandings reached,” he said. “I mean, hey, man, we’ve just got a lot of players on this team. That’s just it. I don’t think no team in the NBA has this many guys that can do multiple things. So that’s what we clashed at during the season, but from here on out, man, it’s about winning. And I think everybody’s clear about that.”

If so, the path to their goals is still relatively clear, though the Celtics will be guaranteed homecourt advantage in just the first round. Hey, teams that don’t win 50 games can’t expect much more than that.

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