In the locker room after their win over the Timberwolves Saturday night, the Celtics were smiling and joking and laughing, and many of them were making plans to spend Sunday’s off-day together.
It was the most jovial postgame scene that I’ve witnessed this season. That is probably partly due to the fact that Boston struggled to a 10-10 start, and there wasn’t all that much to be jovial about. But since last season, this group has not always seemed quite as connected off the court as some other recent Boston teams that featured magnetic personalities such as Evan Turner, Isaiah Thomas, and Gerald Green, or easygoing teammates such as Kelly Olynyk, Avery Bradley, and Amir Johnson.
There has never been a sense that these current Celtics don’t like each other. It has just felt like their bond was not as strong as it could be. Of course, a talented team without a special bond is certainly preferable to a less-talented team with a special bond, but the preference would be to have both. But on Saturday night, Kyrie Irving acknowledged that there have been times when the Celtics’ lack of camaraderie and cohesion affected them.
“I think we all wanted to win individually, but I think we all wanted to win on our terms, our own terms,” he said. “When you have that, when you have your own individual intent, I think that can sometimes get in the way of what’s best for the group, so I think we’re getting past that one now.”
Success cures all, and whenever a struggling team crafts a winning streak, there is a tendency to seek reasons for it. But Irving insisted that this team is now closer than it was before.
“Night and day, honestly,” he said.
One example came moments after the Timberwolves win, when a horde of Celtics crept up behind Gordon Hayward and dumped cups of Gatorade and water on his head to celebrate his 30-point, 9-rebound, 8-assist performance.
Irving was asked if moments like that matter.
“It’s very important,” he said. “It just shows how much closer we’re getting as a group, weathering the storm, going through what we’ve gone through. There’s still challenges ahead, but I think we’re much more equipped to deal with it, much more prepared, because you know the guy you’re standing next to as well as the guy you’re playing with. So coming to the bench knowing the next guy has your back, that’s all you want in a team.”
I remember sitting with Hayward in Boston last December, when his left ankle was still in a brace, and watching on television as his teammates faced the Spurs in San Antonio. His season-ending injury had taken him away from the court, but it also had mostly taken him away from his new teammates, as he completed much of his rehab elsewhere. He did not really know the others yet. Saturday’s Gatorade baptism felt like a true welcome for him. Coach Brad Stevens was glad to see it.
“If you don’t get there as a team, you’re in trouble,” he said. “So, that’s good.”
The Celtics remain in the easiest segment of their schedule, and there will be great opportunities to collect more wins over the next two weeks. Maybe the wins will breed more fellowship, or maybe the fellowship will breed more wins.
However it goes, Irving boiled down the intersection of talent and teamwork and togetherness into one succinct yet relatable sentence:
“We should have fun kicking people’s [butts].”
. . .
Speaking of Hayward, much has been made — including in this space — about his slow start to the season. Even though opposing scorers were frequently hunting him on defense, and even though he was hesitant when driving to the basket, Stevens consistently pointed out all the ways Hayward was still helping the team.
And a closer look at the statistics provides further evidence. Hayward is averaging just 26.8 minutes per game, mostly because he started the year with a playing-time restriction that has since been lifted.
But when stretched out to a per-36-minute baseline, he is averaging 15.1 points, 7.4 rebounds, 4.7 assists, and 1.7 steals. The rebound and steal numbers would both be career highs, and the assist mark would be his second highest. Also, he is making a career-best 88.2 percent of his free throws.
Hayward’s advanced metrics, which were quite grisly at the start of the season, have rebounded quite well thanks to his strong play recently. The Celtics are now outscoring opponents by 5.3 points per 100 possessions with Hayward on the court, a net rating that is higher than those of Al Horford, Marcus Morris, Jaylen Brown, and Terry Rozier.
. . .
On Saturday night, a Minnesota reporter pointed out an interesting fact about the Celtics’ schedule that you probably wouldn’t notice unless you’re really into itineraries: They are in a stretch of 14 games in a row in which they will fly to each of their games. Basically, there are no multi-game homestands, so road games are mixed in with single home games, which means lots of airline miles.
Of course, this stretch also includes several multi-day breaks, like the four-day respite the Celtics are currently enjoying. So it’s not all TSA and runways.
Stevens mostly shrugged off the flying time, but he did point out both before and after Saturday’s game how unusual it was for the Celtics to have already completed half of their Western Conference road games for the year.
“This has been a really hard stretch,” he said.