Tomase: NBA title might be only way to keep Celtics from being ripped apart

John Tomase
February 22, 2019 - 10:22 am

If Jayson Tatum wants to remain a Celtic for life, and Boston fans want to see Kyrie Irving in green beyond June, then the task over the next four months is pretty simple: win it all.

No pressure.

The Celtics' day of reckoning fast approaches with seemingly no way out of this current mess of a season. After a spirited and yet ultimately insufficient effort in Milwaukee on Thursday night, the C's find themselves mired in fifth place in the Eastern Conference.

Hoping to make a statement after the All-Star break -- they won four straight and six of seven to open the second half last year -- they instead delivered their worst shooting performance of the season in a 98-97 loss that wasn't decided until Kyrie Irving's twisting lefty runner at the buzzer caught too much rim and not enough backboard.

It was a solid effort against the East's No. 1 seed, but moral victories ceased being acceptable when the undermanned C's pushed LeBron and Co. to seven games in last year's conference finals. The Celtics were supposed to challenge for homecourt advantage throughout the playoffs. Instead, they could end up in Philadelphia to open the 4 vs. 5 series in April.

Calling the season a mess may sound strong until you consider what's at stake. Irving, the transcendent superstar around whom Danny Ainge hoped to build the next Boston dynasty, is getting cold feet. He has not clicked with his young teammates, but he hasn't spent much time looking in the mirror, either. His leadership style can veer towards "all take, no give," and instead of constantly bemoaning the immaturity of those around him, he might be better served exhibiting some patience and showing them the way.

Whether you or I believe Irving is acting unreasonably doesn't really matter, though, because he holds all of those cards David Price has been hoarding since October. If Irving decides to bolt, there's really nothing the Celtics can do to stop him except offer the extra $80 million he can't get anywhere else and hope it's enough.

Well, there is one thing they could do, and that's swing a deal for disgruntled Pelicans big man Anthony Davis. The Celtics have lusted after the all-world center for about five years, and they have the pieces to land him this summer.

The centerpiece of any deal would almost certainly have to be Tatum, the versatile second-year forward who's an All-Star in waiting and already the second- or third-best player on the Celtics, depending on how Al Horford is feeling on any given night.

Tatum recently declared that he wants to spend his entire career in Boston -- if only Irving outwardly shared that enthusiasm -- but a Davis deal completed without him will require gross negligence on the part of the Pelicans, who cannot afford to mismanage their most prized asset.

If you love the potential of this particular Celtics team, then there's really only one way to keep it together, and it feels like a longshot. The C's need to get their bleep together and win a championship, like right now.

How might Irving's feelings change if he's hoisting the Larry O'Brien trophy in June? If the Celtics win, he will almost have certainly led them there. His young teammates will have figured out their roles. Maybe Gordon Hayward will have completed his recent progress towards regaining his old form.

It may feel unlikely, but it's by no means impossible. The Celtics were preseason favorites for a reason, and their top-end talent still rivals that of anyone in the East, as does their ability to give the Warriors a game, which they consistently do better than anyone.

That we're speaking in these terms at all shows how dire the future suddenly feels. The Celtics were supposed to build towards contention -- challenge for a title this year, win one sometime in the next two or three when Golden State diminishes into the West.

That timetable now feels accelerated out of desperation. Ready or not, Banner 18 might be the only way out of this mess with Ainge's vision intact.