BOSTON (AP) — One way or another, the spotlight was always going to shine on the Boston Celtics in an Eastern Conference without LeBron James.
After back-to-back losses to James’ Cavaliers in the past two conference finals, his departure West to join the Los Angeles Lakers seemed to clear the path for Boston to take the reins in the East.
That hasn’t happened — yet.
Instead of solidifying themselves as the NBA champion Golden State Warriors’ chief challenger, the Celtics come out of the All-Star break still with much to figure out — and trailing Milwaukee and Toronto in the East standings.
“We realize that we’ve played well in the last month and a half,” Celtics coach Brad Stevens said. “Although there have been multiple days when I’m sure it hasn’t felt like it.”
Beginning with a win over Toronto on Jan. 16, Boston won 12 of its final 15 games before the break. It also included wins over five other teams currently in position to make the playoffs. But Boston also blew an 18-point lead in a last-second loss to the Lakers and a 28-point lead two days later in a loss to the Clippers.
The Celtics recovered to post close wins at Philadelphia and at home against Detroit in their final game before the break. And they did it without Kyrie Irving, who missed both games with a strained right knee.
Irving was able to play 25 minutes in the All-Star game and is expected to be back in the starting lineup Thursday when Boston plays at Milwaukee. That matchup is the start of a three-game road trip that includes a visit to Toronto.
The Celtics will need a healthy Irving; both the Bucks and Raptors made improvements at the trade deadline.
Milwaukee picked up big man Nikola Mirotic in a deal with the Pelicans. The Raptors added Marc Gasol from Memphis in exchange for center Jonas Valanciunas. Stevens said the assumption is that both teams “would only benefit from those moves.”
Much of the buzz around Boston at the deadline centered on whether Anthony Davis would still be around this summer for the Celtics and other teams to potentially make deals for him.
For now, Boston remains focused on trying to find cohesion and consistency on a roster that has an All-Star in Irving, former All-Stars in Gordon Hayward and Al Horford and tons of young talent led by Jayson Tatum and Jaylen Brown.
Tatum and Brown carried the team with Hayward out for the year and Irving missing most of the second half with a knee issue. Stevens knew making the group gel with everyone healthy would be a challenge and it has.
Hayward has gone from a starter to coming off the bench as he continues to try and rediscover his timing after missing all but one game last year following his devastating ankle injury. He’s started just 17 games this season, his average is down to 11.2 points per game and he is shooting just 44 percent from the field.
Tatum is scoring more points in his second season (16.5 ppg, up from 13.9), but has seen his field-goal percentage drop from 48 down to 45 and his 3-point percentage drop from 43 to 38 percent. Brown has played well lately but is still adjusting to his role off the bench.
Meanwhile Irving has remained steady, averaging 24 points and seven assists per game, earning his sixth All-Star nod. He is the only player in the NBA this season averaging 23 points and six assists, while also shooting 40 percent from beyond the arc.
The Celtics also remain a top 5 defensive team, one of their hallmarks under Stevens.
Still, questions continue to follow a team that at 37-21 is already approaching its total number of losses from a year ago (55-27).
Irving was critical of the Celtics’ younger players during a three-game losing streak in January, saying in part, “the young guys don’t know what it takes to be a championship-level team.” He later apologized after Brown took issue with the comments.
The public bickering prompted some league watchers to wonder whether the team — 9-2 without Irving this season — was somehow better without him in the lineup.
It’s a notion that Celtics president of basketball operations Danny Ainge dismissed outright during a recent appearance on Boston’s 98.5 The Sports Hub.
“It’s completely illogical,” Ainge said. “Kyrie is by far our most efficient offensive player, without question.”
Those comments were echoed by Stevens.
“We need Kyrie to be the best version of ourselves,” he said.
Celtics guard Marcus Smart said their struggles will serve them going forward.
“We’re still fighters, man,” Smart said. “We’ve been hit with a lot of adversity. . But we keep finding ways to overcome it and we keep finding ways to come out with victories. And we keep fighting with what we have.”