Why it's so hard to find an Eastern Conference team to believe in

BOSTON – I don’t know what to make of the Eastern Conference.

Do you? The pundits reflexively make the Cleveland Cavaliers the favorite. They have LeBron James, right? And the Cavs won two straight following Extreme Makeover: Cleveland Edition. They bulldozed Boston and outlasted Oklahoma City. But coming out of the All-Star break, the Cavs dropped two of their first three. They knocked off Brooklyn on Tuesday, but not before the Nets stuck 123 points on them.

Toronto? I believe in the Regular-Season Raptors. The Regular-Season Raptors play a free-flowing offensive style. The Regular-Season Raptors have a baby-faced bench churning out 40 points a night. Playoff Raptors? Are we sure Toronto’s offense won’t morph back into the DeMar DeRozan/Kyle Lowry show, and that the second unit won’t freeze up in its first extended playoff minutes?

Kyrie Irving had the Celtics rolling on Wednesday night. (AP)

Boston? The Celtics are even more unpredictable. Even after a shaky month-plus of regularly surrendering triple digits, Boston still leads the NBA in defensive efficiency. On some nights — Wednesday’s 134-106 drubbing of Charlotte, for example — the Celtics look like contenders. In others — say, back-to-back losses to the Clippers and Cavs going into the All-Star break — they look like first-round fodder.

Officially, the Celtics have won four straight. They have mopped up on the cannon fodder that is Detroit, New York and Memphis. Charlotte came to Boston riding a five-game winning streak, but the Hornets were on the second night of a back-to-back and down Michael Kidd-Gilchrist and Cody Zeller. Their defense shouldn’t have been quite so indifferent (Note: If you don’t pick up Kyrie Irving off a pick-and-roll, he will shoot it), but the Hornets weren’t going to win this one.

So is Boston a new team? Has the one that stumbled into the All-Star break been replaced by one that looks more like the team that surged in the first two-plus months of the season?

What say you, Brad Stevens?

“We did small changes on actions, we’ve tried to play a little more off of our cutting, but we’re also just getting a lot more comfortable playing together,” the Celtics coach said. “And that sometimes takes a little bit of time. We had our moments in December where we showed that we’re capable of it, and then we struggled in January and early February, and for whatever reason, in the last four games, we’ve been a little bit better.”

And you, Kyrie?

“We simplified some things and being able to read and react on the fly and play with a high-intense effort for a longer period of time,” Irving said, “whether it [was] us being tired or just heading into All-Star break, just kind of going through the woes of the season. Coming out of it, I think that for the first few games, we’ve done a great job at responding and we just want to keep it up because the season definitely doesn’t end tomorrow.”

Confirmed. The Celtics have wrapped up a four-game run through a soft part of the schedule and now fly into the teeth of it. They play in Houston on Saturday and at Minnesota on Thursday before facing playoff teams in three of the next four. March winds down with a four-game West Coast road trip. They will be tested.

Will they respond? There are reasons to believe in Boston again. Marcus Smart is back, and some defensive toughness on the perimeter has come with him. Smart’s return deepens the bench, and his on-court chemistry with surprising rookie Daniel Theis has made Theis more dangerous. Greg Monroe has had his moments — poor Willy Hernangomez was on the receiving end of a few of them on Wednesday — and Marcus Morris has been a consistent, 12-point-per-game scorer the last two months.

And yet — questions remain. DeAndre Jordan had 236 dunks on Boston before the All-Star break (maybe it just felt like that), and the Celtics continue to struggle with physical big men. Andre Drummond pulled down 17 rebounds in 31 minutes last week, and Dwight Howard powered in 21 points Wednesday night. After giving up 45.3 points in the paint in the first three games after the All-Star break, the Hornets gashed Boston for 52.

Also: Don’t count on Gordon Hayward coming back this season, either. Stevens has been unequivocal when asked about Hayward (“I’ve said all year, not coming back,” Stevens said) and now the calendar is working against him. I saw Hayward before the All-Star break. He’s walking fine, but his ankle was still swollen and still purpleish, which makes it impossible to believe he will be ready to play before mid-April.

The Celtics’ roster is locked in, as everybody’s is. Now you have to decide which one you want to believe in. Is LeBron James and his new band of shooters enough to overcome a defense that has been downright awful all season? Is this the year Toronto breaks through? Boston? Can Washington get it together? Is Milwaukee mature enough to jump into the mix?

It’s the home stretch of the NBA season, and the Eastern Conference feels more wide open than it has in years. Maybe James’ nearly decade-long run of conference dominance continues. Or perhaps, for someone else, another one begins.

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