CHARLOTTE, N.C. — When Kemba Walker stood in front of a cluster of reporters not long after the Celtics’ 109-92 romp over the Hornets on Tuesday, he smiled and asked if the session could be kept short, for obvious reasons on the holiday night.
On the other side of the room, Javonte Green walked around wearing a shiny green top hat that said “Happy New Year” on it, and a few teammates asked him where they could get one of their own. There were smiles and laughs, as well as a general feel-good vibe as the Celtics said goodbye to a 2019 that ended with so much more promise than it began.
Basketball seasons cross into two years, of course, so the start of 2019 was the middle of one of this franchise’s most angst-filled years in recent memory. There was Kyrie Irving drama and Gordon Hayward’s struggles and Al Horford’s departure, and more losses than anyone originally believed possible.
But the mood has shifted considerably since then, with Boston soaring back toward the top of the Eastern Conference this season, boasting a likeable, hard-working team that the city is embracing again.
“Even the games that we are losing, we’re playing hard, man,” Walker said. “We’re in those games, competing at a high level.”
In addition to playing hard, these Celtics have avoided slipping into funks or ruts, despite missing at least one of their top five players for the majority of the season. With more than one-third of the year complete, Boston has yet to have a losing streak longer than two games.
On Saturday Boston had a rare dud against the considerably undermanned Raptors. But that loss did not fester, as the Celtics arrived in Charlotte without potential All-Star Jaylen Brown (illness) and stayed in control for almost the entire game anyway.
“I think we have just a renewed sense of focus after losses, or a bad loss,” forward Gordon Hayward said. “I think we had a good film session yesterday so I think it’s more than anything a renewed focus and honing in on our game plan and executing it.”
Hayward had his best game since returning from a foot injury, tallying 21 points, 10 rebounds, and 6 assists.
“I finally got a couple threes to go down,” he said. “I found some rhythm out there, so that was important for me moving forward. I’m going to try to build off this one.”
Jayson Tatum added 24 points and 7 rebounds and Walker had 22 points and 7 assists. Walker’s game here in November was his first since leaving the Hornets last summer following an eight-year career with the franchise, and it was filled with emotions, ovations, and a video tribute. Walker received a nice round of applause this time, too, but it was certainly more subdued, as such reactions are as time passes.
Enes Kanter, whose role has become essential with the prolonged absence of Robert Williams, came off the bench and had 13 points, 14 rebounds, and a career-high 6 blocks. Kanter is not known for his defense, but was happy to soak up some rare rim-protecting adulation after this win. Hayward joked that Kanter had been referring to himself as a stop sign, meaning offenses cannot get past him.
“New year, new me, baby,” Kanter said with a chuckle. “Nah, it’s good to be out there, because we know we’re going to score the ball. We’ve got enough talent to go out there and score the ball, so the thing coach Brad [Stevens] is always talking about, if you want to get to the next level, it’s defensively. So that was the focus.”
Kanter’s defensive dominance might be more of a one-night event, but he has proven that his rebounding prowess is much more sustainable. He helped Boston to a 54-41 edge on the boards that included 15 offensive rebounds and 14 second-chance points.
Six of them came during an important stretch at the start of the fourth quarter. The Hornets, who lingered for much of the night without ever really appearing to be a threat, pulled within 80-75 in the opening minute of the final period.
But the Celtics answered by converting second-chance baskets on each of their next three possessions, one by Hayward and two by Kanter. That was part of a 23-8 run that put the game away and sent the Celtics into 2020 feeling good about where they stand.