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Why a tumultuous season makes the Celtics more of a threat

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Hayward, Tatum carry Celtics without Kyrie (1:41)

Jayson Tatum has a team-high 19 points to go with Gordon Hayward's 18 to lead a Kyrie Irving-less Celtics to a 118-110 win over the Pistons. (1:41)

After the Boston Celtics suffered a disappointing home loss to the LA Clippers on Saturday night -- a second straight game that saw Boston surrender a double-digit lead before going on to lose outright -- forward Marcus Morris decided he had some things to say.

"For me it's not really about the loss," Morris told reporters. "It's about the attitudes that we're playing with. Guys are hanging their heads. It's just not fun. It's not fun. We're not competing at a high level. Even though we're winning, it's not fun. I don't see the joy in the game.

"I watch all these other teams around the league and guys are up on the bench, they're jumping on the court, they're doing all of this other stuff that looks like they're enjoying their teammates' success, they're enjoying everything, and they're playing together and they're playing to win. And when I look at us, I just see a bunch of individuals."

And, just like that, the Celtics were plunged back into their latest state of full-on panic.

At least, that was the case until the Celtics -- without Kyrie Irving -- won on back-to-back nights in Philadelphia against the new-look 76ers and at home against the Detroit Pistons to head into the All-Star break on a high note.

This cycle, as topsy-turvy as it seems, perfectly encapsulates the way Boston's season has played out: Win a few games, and look like things are getting on track. Subsequently lose a game or two, allowing all hell to break loose. Then do it all over again.

It has been what has made this season so confusing not just for the Celtics, but for everyone -- from the media to the fans to other teams around the league -- trying to process just what this team will become. It also is why, with 24 games left before the playoffs, the Celtics -- despite all they have endured thus far -- should still be considered a force to be reckoned with once they get there.

Given the amount of drama that has surrounded the Celtics, it's easy to forget they still are on pace to win 52 games, and finish with home-court advantage in the first round of the playoffs. But given the expectations put upon them before the season, the fact Boston has lagged behind the Milwaukee Bucks and Toronto Raptors -- and, until the past couple of days, the 76ers, too -- has added to the underwhelming feelings surrounding this squad.

Boston's internal dynamics haven't helped. When a team has its own frustrations spill out into the public sphere as often as the Celtics have this season, it's hard for those outside of the team to take a longer view.

Over the course of an 82-game season, every team has moments when it gets frustrated. In Boston this season, though, it feels as though every loss has become its own existential crisis for the Celtics, and their fans, to deal with. The outburst from Morris following Saturday's loss was far from the first time Boston's players have had harsh words about their own play.

Irving is easily having his best individual season, but he has repeatedly taken aim at the team's younger players for not buying in to what needs to be done for the Celtics to have success. The younger players, meanwhile, (mainly Terry Rozier, Jayson Tatum and Jaylen Brown) have at times bristled at Irving's criticism -- including, on some occasions, firing back through the media. Gordon Hayward's understandably uneven progress in his return from last season's gruesome leg and ankle injuries hasn't helped, as it has sapped away minutes and touches from those same young players who led the Celtics to within a few possessions of the NBA Finals last season.

Hayward goes through an extensive debriefing of the state of his game, and his recovery, after just about every game, with good performances signaling him turning a corner and bad ones highlighting how far he has to go. After close to three-quarters of a season of those, he's (also understandably) ready to be done having to go through daily discussions of his injury.

Meanwhile, all of that took a back seat over the past few weeks to the insufferable drama surrounding Anthony Davis, and whether he'd be traded by last week's trade deadline or whether he'd be available for Boston, which can't trade for him until Irving agrees to a new contract this summer.

The constant chatter of the Celtics having the most assets to send out in a Davis trade -- including not just draft picks, but young talent such as Tatum and Brown -- wore on the team. It arguably wore on Irving more than anyone else, as he showed during an interview session in New York on Feb. 1 when he cast doubt on his future in Boston.

"At the end of the day, I'm going to do what's best for my career, and that's just where it stands. That's just where it stands," Irving said. "And my focus this season is winning a championship with the Boston Celtics. Obviously, we had goals coming into the season, and the primary goal is to win a championship. So that's where my focus is."

When pressed further about his prior commitment to re-sign with the Celtics, Irving simply said, "Ask me July 1."

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Jalen: This is Kyrie's final season with Celtics

Jalen Rose says that this is the last season Kyrie Irving will be in a Celtics uniform, even though Boston will be worse without him.

But Davis wasn't traded, and now the Celtics have become the favorites to get the superstar forward. If they do, they expect to be able to pair him with Irving for years to come.

In the meantime, Boston still has aspirations of making it out of the Eastern Conference and back to the NBA Finals for the first time in almost a decade. For all of their very public issues this season, when the Celtics have played against top competition, they have looked every bit of the contender they were billed. In matchups with the Bucks, Raptors and Sixers so far this season, Boston is a combined 6-2 -- including 3-0 against Philadelphia after Boston won there Tuesday night with Irving sidelined because of a knee injury.

Toronto, meanwhile, is 5-6, and Philadelphia is a dismal 1-7.

"Good teams have clunkers, but good teams respond to those with the right effort and approach," Celtics coach Brad Stevens said after Tuesday's win in Philadelphia. "That was a good one. ... I just thought the whole night we played the right way."

After the Bucks (Nikola Mirotic), Raptors (Marc Gasol and Jeremy Lin) and Sixers (Tobias Harris) have made significant upgrades both prior to the NBA's trade deadline and in the buyout market, Boston is by no means a favorite to get through the Eastern Conference playoffs. But despite the Celtics failing to make a similar deadline upgrade -- instead continuing to hoard their assets for a run at Davis this summer -- they still easily have enough to remain a threat.

They have a clear formula to win in May and June: Keep the game close until the closing minutes, and then let Irving -- arguably the best closer in the game today -- carry them home. That same formula already has provided several of those wins for the Celtics against their competitors atop the East this season.

And Tuesday's win in Philadelphia without Irving -- in which Al Horford and Hayward led Boston to the victory -- served as yet another reminder that the Celtics are going to need both of those veterans to be consistently playing that way if they want to fulfill their ambitions and reach the NBA Finals.

The Celtics will now take a week to rest and recharge before returning from the break for a showdown with the East-leading Bucks in Milwaukee to begin their 24-game run to the playoffs. Boston has already gone through so much that it seems hard to believe that much time is left in its regular season. But, despite it all, everything the Celtics were expected to do when this season began is still possible.

Now they just have to do it.