Tempting fate

The Celtics know how it is to face pressure. They’ve been familiar with it since they drafted Jayson Tatum third overall in 2017. Since then, they’ve finished league runners-up once and battled for the East championship three other times — as much an indication of their contender status as of their disappointing stints in the playoffs. Including a trio of first and second round outings, their playoff experience since adding otherworldly talent to their roster has been cause for disappointment.

Through the Celtics’ 2023-24 campaign, the pressure is even more pronounced. Having all but lapped the National Basketball Association field with a 64-18 slate in the regular season, they are expected to run over the competition en route to the title. Yet, even as they have, for the most part, lived up to billing as favorites, they remain dangerously susceptible to near-critical lulls in concentration. And when they take their foot off the pedal for one reason or another, they find their performance woefully inadequate. It happened when the Heat took Game Two of their opening-round series at the Garden, and when the Cavaliers did the same in the conference semifinals.

The Celtics would go on to take care of business, but not without eliciting doubts from longtime habitues of the pro scene. It’s as if they want to play with fire solely to up the ante, testing themselves in ways their opponents can’t. From here on, however, the quality of the obstacles begins to take on a Herculean form. What they got away with against the injury-riddled Heat and Cavaliers, they won’t come close to trying versus the Knicks or the Pacers.

It’s never good to tempt fate, but the Celtics can’t seem to stop getting in their way. As skilled as they may be, the road to success now has a steeper slope that requires them to be at their best without letup. To be sure, they know well enough to learn from their mistakes, and are more than capable to jump over hurdles; not even the absence of vital cog Kristaps Porzingis puts a significant crimp on their plans to finally take the Larry O’Brien Trophy home. Which is why they’re still the choice of conventional wisdom to win it all. They believe it, too, and for as long as they walk the talk, they should be just fine.

 

Anthony L. Cuaycong has been writing Courtside since BusinessWorld introduced a Sports section in 1994. He is a consultant on strategic planning, operations and human resources management, corporate communications, and business development.