OAKLAND, Calif. — Those “like a box of chocolates” Celtics showed up again Tuesday evening at Oracle Arena, tantalizing their faithful with their best performance of the season after 10 days of pure turmoil.
What else would you expect from this turbulent season besides another tug at your emotions? Tuesday was an unexpected ray of hope for a team that has been a disappointment so many times because of maddening inconsistency and lack of cohesion.
But for those who have watched the Celtics all season, their 128-95 dismantling of the Golden State Warriors shouldn’t come as such a surprise. This is the team we expected. This is the team that’s one of the more talented in the NBA when it’s right. This is the team that could soar to the NBA Finals.
This team hasn’t showed up nearly enough, essentially losing the faith of its fan base, those prognosticators who picked them to reach the Finals, and even losing faith in themselves for a while.
The long flight from Boston to San Francisco, a six-hour journey that took an unusually long path to beat an oncoming snowstorm, may have been the remedy for this fractured bunch. That trip, followed by a rather positive practice session Monday afternoon at the University of San Francisco, were the sources of this renaissance that changed the entire objective of this West Coast trip.
The Celtics won what was expected to be the hardest game on this four-game sojourn, and won rather easily, behind the most meaningful 30 points Gordon Hayward has scored in his Boston tenure. He played with confidence, fortitude, and increased swagger as shots fell.
It was the most surprising development of the night. Hayward registered his first double-digit scoring game since Feb. 13 and showed that he can keep up with elite competition. His lack of consistency has been one of the Celtics’ biggest detriments this season, so his upsurge was heartening.
“It was fun tonight,” Hayward said of the team effort. “That’s the goal, to try to build on it. I understand it’s just one game. You’re going to have ups and downs in a season. Try to build off things I did correctly. Physically I’ve been feeling pretty good for a while. Mentally, it’s been a challenge.”
There have been signs the past few days that this team has finally decided to push aside personal issues and enjoy each other and the journey. That’s what these seasons are all about: enjoying being one of the best teams in the world, meeting the challenge of playing together, and flourishing in your role without complaint because the collective goal is bigger than the personal one.
And that goes for the 15th man and the top man.
Kyrie Irving admitted he has been in his feelings the past few weeks, unhinged by being dragged into the Anthony Davis trade rumors, the dissection of his pre-All-Star Game conversation with Kevin Durant, the increasing murmurs that he’s bolting Boston in free agency for the New York Knicks, the criticism of his game (such as the Celtics-are-better-without-Kyrie stories), and the questioning of his leadership.
But separate conversations with president of basketball operations Danny Ainge and coach Brad Stevens appeared to ease Irving’s tensions.
“That long plane ride helped us out, I’ll just say that,” Irving said. “We needed it. We want to get to a point we’re just going to get tired of fighting each other, fighting the outside world when it doesn’t even matter. This is our sanctuary and we have to do everything to protect it. We can’t let anybody infiltrate it.
“The business part of it is what makes it terrible for me, honestly, dealing with all this [expletive]. The basketball part, I have to keep that fun. That’s where I’m great. That’s where I love to play and be around my teammates. That’s what makes me happy.
“It wasn’t a change of perspective. It was just letting the guard down completely. Just not thinking I’m at odds with everybody. It’s not a competition in this locker room.
“Talking with Brad was very helpful. Talking with Danny was very helpful. That made it very easy to just go out and just have fun playing basketball.”
It’s just another chapter in this Celtics novella. Another reason to keep watching. The players said all the right things after the game: They have to be more selfless, they have to focus on the bigger picture, they have to realize they are blowing a rare opportunity to chase team greatness.
It was reassuring to the Celtics faithful to see their team capable of a performance such as this, embarrassing an elite team on its home floor, causing frustration by the third quarter, countering Golden State’s expected run with one of their own, maintaining their vigor for a full 48 minutes.
Don’t make NBA Finals plans just yet, but Tuesday proved the Celtics are capable of brilliance despite their self-defeating habits. They occasionally aren’t their own worst enemy. They do get along every now and then. They are capable of playing at a high level with everybody coming away happy.
Now let’s see if this can continue, at least for another 24 hours.