Kyrie Irving is often asked to think back to his old team, the Cleveland Cavaliers, and how regardless of their lulls during the regular season, they always shifted smoothly into playoff gear.

The omnipresent question is whether the Boston Celtics are capable of a similar shift, of flipping the so-called switch. Wednesday’s narrow loss to Philadelphia, without benefit of Gordon Hayward (concussion), Aron Baynes (left ankle sprain) and Marcus Smart (Flagrant 2 ejection), featured some of the Celtics’ best recent performances.

But as evidenced by Monday’s loss to the Nuggets, the Celtics still have confounding defensive breakdowns. With 10 games left in the regular season, Irving doesn’t believe his team is all that switchable right now.

“I think that the best thing we had going in that aspect is experience,” he said of Cleveland. “So, like, the switch – we know what that switch is. This team doesn’t yet.”

Then again, Irving’s current teammates reached Game 7 of the Eastern Conference finals without him or Hayward. That, Irving supposes, is the experience players like Jayson Tatum, Jaylen Brown and Terry Rozier have to fall back on now.

“The best thing for us is experience,” said Irving. “So guys have a year of experience and I think we’ve given ourselves too much credit. What that switch is, championship-level basketball, only a few people know what that switch is.

“It takes time to develop it, it takes experience with each other. And we’ve tried to make up as much ground in the last year and a half as we could. I think a lot of other teams in the league have had a lot more time to develop and be around each other and have a future to build for. And here we’ve kind of tried to make it up for the last year and a half of what we can possibly do for this year. That’s where we are.”

There are also misleading numbers, as Coach Brad Stevens will readily admit.

Somehow the Celtics remain fifth in the NBA in defensive rating (106.6) and points differential (5.0).

As analytics-driven as the next coach, in this case the reverse works for Stevens. The eye test tells him something quite different about his team.

“I still can’t believe where we’re ranked, that’s not what my eyes tell me, I still don’t think we’re as good a defense as our ranking, it’s something we really need to do in the last month,” Stevens said. “Ultimately if you can’t get stops when you need to get stops, you won’t live very long in the playoffs. And it’s hard because the offenses are so good. With offenses being what they are you have to be able to manage runs.

“When a team is really going it can’t be a 10-0 run or a 14-0 run, it’s got to be 10-4 or 8-6, you have to be able to manage that,” Stevens said of the kinds of runs – especially against the Nuggets – that have recently hurt them. “There will be many times the other offense is tough to stop because of the individual talent, and (Philly) is a great example. But on the other end, if you can’t really dig deep and get stops and have some versatility defensively, you can’t last long. We need to show ourselves better in that regard.”

As such, there’s not much time left to find some kind of steady playoff form.

“We’re just trying to get to that playoff level right now,” said Terry Rozier. “Obviously we got 10 games left. We don’t want to look past these 10 games but we’re also getting prepared for the playoffs, so some guys may rest. But we got to get in that mindset right now. Once the playoffs are here, there’s like no taking no steps back. We gotta be ready to come out the gates, fresh out the gates.

“I think we’re right there, we just need to clean up some little things and that’s the encouraging part.”

And the eye test will remain Stevens’ most accurate gauge.

“I’m not worried about the numbers, I’m worried about what the eyes are saying, and the other day we had some good examples,” he said of the Nuggets loss. “When we’re really locked in and good defensively, we’re physical, we’re long and athletic, we cover a lot of ground, and the most important thing is the most important thing.

“(There’s) really a fine line, but you have to do it well and you have to do it on every possession, and I just haven’t seen it on every possession, when we need to be good, to have a chance to advance in the playoffs.”


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