Alfes: Blown leads, drama overshadowing Celtics' success

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An 18-point lead against the Lakers, a 28-point lead against the Clippers and a healthy Kyrie Irving all evaporated this past week for the Boston Celtics.

Amplified further by Marcus Morris’ “I just see a bunch of individuals” quote, and the preseason favorites to win the Eastern Conference now find themselves closer to the sixth-place Nets than the first-place Raptors.

But is there really a reason for concern in Beantown?

On the court, no. In the locker room, maybe.

The rollercoaster ride that is the 2018-19 Celtics is nearing an intermission, as the peaks and valleys will settle at a midpoint during All-Star week in Charlotte.

Despite Irving’s criticism of younger teammates, Gordon Hayward’s underwhelming return and Danny Ainge’s inactivity during the trade deadline -- Boston is still a championship-caliber team.

Head coach Brad Stevens and company still have the league’s third-best net rating (6.5), trailing only the Bucks (9.23) and Warriors (7.56). The Celtics still have won 10 of their last 13 games, moving forward from Irving’s comments and a season-long, three-game losing streak. Boston still controls its own destiny, with 26 games and a weeklong hiatus left on its regular season slate.

It starts and ends with Irving, who is having the best year of his career on both ends of the hardwood. His offensive rating -- 119 points scored per 100 possessions -- is a career-high, and his defensive rating -- 106 points allowed per 100 possessions -- is a career-low.

Irving’s recent injury scare turned out to be a right knee sprain -- not the left knee he had surgery on last season -- a minor setback that will not affect his second-half availability. His looming free agency has garnered headlines, but Ainge reportedly believes their July 1 “marriage” is still on, and his asset-heavy arsenal could be enough to land Anthony Davis, too.

The "younger teammates" of Irving are also holding up their end of the bargain. Third-year forward Jaylen Brown has scored in double-figures in each of his last nine games. Second-year wing Jayson Tatum has shown more of a willingness to draw contact and get to the foul line, as evidenced by his season-highs in free-throw attempts last Tuesday against the Cavaliers (12 attempts) and Saturday against the Clippers (10 attempts). Tatum also has seven, seven, 10 and eight rebounds in his recent four-game stretch, using his 6-foot-8 frame to bruise and battle in the paint.

Marcus Smart has career-highs in nearly every shooting category: field goal percentage (40.4), two-point field goal percentage (47.0), three-point field goal percentage (36.8), true-shooting field goal percentage (55.8) and effective field goal percentage (52.2).

Morris might not be having fun, but his 115 points per 100 possessions smashes his previous best (107 in 2015-16), and the same can be said for his six rebounds per night (5.4 in 2017-18).

The problem with the Celtics is not their play on the court. Morris sees a bunch of individuals in the locker room, but his team ranks sixth in the NBA with 26.4 assists per game. Irving sees younger teammates who “don’t know what it takes to be a championship level team,” but that same group has made adjustments and contributed in different ways over the last month.

Of the Celtics’ 21 losses, 14 have been decided by single-digit points. The spur-of-the-moment reactions to such demoralizing defeats have made headlines across the country, but the numbers still indicate a strong team.

If having fun is the issue, then maybe the All-Star break is exactly what Boston needs -- time to recuperate and reflect on the highs and lows of the first-half, rollercoaster ride.