Ainge: Mixed emotions as Irving and Hayward watch teammates

Ainge: Mixed emotions as Irving and Hayward watch teammates

BOSTON – The Celtics have been consistently praised for their ability to win despite not having two of their best players - All-Stars Kyrie Irving and Gordon Hayward.

Still, as Danny Ainge pointed out this morning on 98.5 the Sports Hub's "Toucher and Rich" show, simulcast on NBC Sports Boston, the team’s success has been a bittersweet experience for those two players unable to participate in the postseason due to injuries.

“It’s hard on those guys,” Ainge said. “This is why they wanted to come to Boston, what’s going on now and they don’t get to be a part of it.”

Hayward suffered a season-ending left ankle injury just five minutes into the season-opener in Cleveland.

Irving, who was traded from Cleveland last summer, had his season end when a minor procedure on his left knee revealed an infection. It required an additional procedure to remove the screws from his 2015 surgery to repair his fractured left kneecap.

Both certainly want to be out there, but Ainge said they're happy for the team’s success even if they can’t be on the floor playing with them.

“They are excited for this young group of guys [and] Al Horford, they're excited for all those guys,” Ainge said. “All I can do is think about how good we’ll be with them. Because those guys are good and our depth will be great. It’ll be a lot of fun.”

Some other highlights from Ainge’s interview:

· Shane Larkin, who has been out with a left shoulder injury suffered in the second-round series against Philadelphia, is unlikely to play in this series but may heal in enough time to play if the Celtics advance to the NBA Finals. “We’re taking it week by week now,” Ainge said. “We’re not counting on him coming back but I’ll leave the door open a little bit for him to come back another series, if we get that far.”

· On the amount of attention coach Brad Stevens gets relative to the players and whether that’s a concern. “There is a danger in that,” Ainge said. “But because the players know Brad and know his humility and they know he’s not seeking that, I don’t think there’s any issues with that. Brad does get a lot of attention. There’s not a coach in the NBA that I wouldn’t trade Brad for. He’s the best and we love him. But the players are playing great. So, I do think the players deserve the credit. Brad’s a terrific coach but the NBA is a player’s game.”



Kyrie Irving did it all in win vs Raptors

Kyrie Irving did it all in win vs Raptors

BOSTON — Forget all the points — and there were a lot of them, a season-high 43 to be exact — or the assists — 11 of those, too. Kyrie Irving almost single-handedly willed the Boston Celtics to an overtime victory over the Toronto Raptors on Friday night but his relentless efforts were maybe best exemplified on the defensive end of the floor where he is far less renowned.

The Celtics trailed by eight when Irving subbed back in with 10:24 remaining in the fourth quarter, coach Brad Stevens left with few options but to go back to Irving early in the final frame with Toronto threatening to run away. 

Boston quickly cut its deficit to three but Jayson Tatum lost the ball trying to attack in transition and Kawhi Leonard raced the other way with a chance to stem the Celtics’ momentum.

With a behind-the-back dribble, Leonard left Celtics big man Aron Baynes skidding near the blocks but, as Leonard entered the paint, Irving raced from the opposite side of the floor and with a left-handed swipe, slightly dislodged the ball from Leonard’s possession. Falling to the court, Irving reached out with that left arm and managed to force a jump-ball. 

Considering Leonard’s oversized mitts and his pure strength, it was no small feat by Irving to force a tie-up.

Irving didn’t win the ensuing tip on his own but he challenged Leonard enough that Leonard's swipe directed the ball directly to Tatum, and ultimately led to Irving shooting free throws at the other end.

An awful lot happened over the next 13 minutes of play but what was clear in that moment was that Irving was not going to be denied on this night. And time after time he came up with big plays that helped the Celtics emerge with a thrilling 123-116 triumph at TD Garden.

"It’s just not too often during the regular season you get to have games like this,” said Irving. "So you want to take full advantage of them. They’re a great test for your team, on both ends of the basketball floor. A great player in the other locker room [in Leonard]. So you’ve just got to be on your Ps and Qs for the unknown, and that’s the competition. The level of play raises and you’ve just got to appreciate that.”

Irving was otherworldly on this night. Not only did he score a season-high 43 points on ultra-efficient 18-of-26 shooting but he posted 23 points on 9-of-12 shooting during the fourth quarter and overtime.

Only one of those makes came beyond the elbow, Irving hitting a 3-pointer early in the fourth frame. He spent the rest of the night furiously attacking the basket, generating tough-finish layups for himself or slinging the ball to open teammates.

“Oh man, [Irving] made some shots tonight where you’re just like, ‘Wow.' You catch yourself being a fan,” said Gordon Hayward, who turned in a season-high 39 minutes, made the free throws that forced overtime, and played maybe his most complete game since returning from the ankle injury that cost him nearly all of his 2017-18 season.

"When he got into that mode, the whole arena knew where he was going, and so did the Raptors. They just couldn’t stop him. He played tremendous. We leaned on him a lot.”

It wasn’t just the fact that Irving put up big scoring numbers, it was the way he did it. A Celtics team that had fallen in love with long jumpers watched their starters combine to attempt zero first-half free throws. Irving attacked the basket on the first possession of the second half and didn’t stop until the final horn of overtime.

Irving routinely wandered into Toronto’s labyrinth of arms and legs, particularly those belonging to Serge Ibaka and Leonard, and still muscled home incredibly tough finishes.

"I'm kind of used to it,” said teammate Marcus Morris. "I told him he had to have an A in English class because his English with that ball is slim-to-none. I've never seen nobody put the ball at the top of the backboard like that and get the roll. He's a good player, man. He's big for us and he came here to play and we needed every bit of it.”

Celtics players admitted the hardest part of Irving’s brilliance is not getting caught watching it in progress.

"It’s our job not to stand and watch. Continue to cut, move,” said Tatum. "Obviously, he’s putting out a show though.”

Irving has been utterly brilliant in recent weeks, particularly since shedding the afro that he entered the season with. In the eight games he’s played since his haircut, Irving is averaging 28.5 points per game on 56.3 percent shooting overall, including 50 percent beyond the 3-point arc. Add in 6.3 assists, 4.5 rebounds, and 2.3 steals over 34 minutes per game. 

And yet the Celtics were an underwhelming 4-4 in the eight games prior to Friday night (Irving didn’t play in one of those losses in Utah). Despite Irving’s individual brilliance, Boston was still struggling to find the consistency the team so clearly lacked out of the gates this season.

Boston could have let Friday’s game slip away but Irving wouldn’t let it. Even as the Raptors pushed their lead to double digits, Irving never stopped fighting back. It’d be foolish to suggest that Friday’s game was a must-win — no November game deserves that sort of billing — but it’s also hard to argue that these Celtics didn’t desperately need a statement win, if simply to reaffirm their position as one of the East’s top dogs.

TD Garden buzzed with playoff-like intensity and Irving played like a title was on the line. It was a refreshing change from the duds the Celtics had often put forth this season.

Now they need to build off of the momentum of consecutive wins.

"We always want to have success. I think striving for it is always a goal,” said Irving. "But you have to have the patience to understand it’s not just coming right away. You’ve got to beat some great teams and build some continuity. I don’t want to say ‘hopefully,’ but I think this test tonight will set a precedent going forward for us.”

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Gordon Hayward plays big minutes, big role in Celtics overtime win

Gordon Hayward plays big minutes, big role in Celtics overtime win

BOSTON – Gordon Hayward sat in front of his locker stall, both feet shin-deep in icy water with both knees receiving post-game treatments that involved them being heavily wrapped. 

Kyrie Irving had delivered a super-sized double-double of 43 points and 11 assists which naturally, drew a lot of attention. 

But the man getting dapped up by one teammate after another following the win was Hayward who delivered what was arguably his most complete game of the season in Boston's 123-116 overtime win against Toronto. 

“It’s great to be able to see he’s getting comfortable,” Aron Baynes told NBC Sports Boston. “You can see it by the end of the game."

When Hayward plays like he did on Friday, it "takes some pressure off of Kyrie (Irving) as well, JT (Jayson Tatum), everyone, one through 15," Baynes said. "That’s what makes it fun with this team.”

And Hayward’s performance came against a Toronto (12-4) team that has been atop the Eastern Conference standings for most of this season, further validating this as a quality performance against a high-quality opponent. 

Indeed, Hayward delivered a strong across-the-board performance for Boston (9-6), tallying 15 points on 4-for-8 shooting to go with five rebounds, five assists and four steals while logging a season-high 39 minutes.

We have seen Hayward put up similar numbers in terms of points, rebounds, assists and steals this season.

But the 39 minutes played?

This came as a surprise to many, with no one more shocked than Hayward.

The 39 minutes played included him on the floor for the entire five minute overtime session.

 “I was wondering if they were going to take me out of the game at some point in (overtime),” Hayward said. “Happy that he left me in. It felt good to play that many minutes; it’s been a long time since I’ve done that so it’s a good confidence builder.”

You have to go back to March 31, 2017 for the last time Hayward, then with the Utah Jazz, played as many minutes as he did on Friday night.

That game was against Washington and similar to Friday’s outcome against Toronto, that was also a seven-point win for Hayward’s team.

One of the challenges for Hayward and the Celtics as a team in general, is figuring out the best way that all this talent can gel together and contribute in as positive a way as possible, to winning.

While Hayward is very much a work in progress, it’s clear that his greatest benefit to this team right now when it comes to winning, is being a playmaker who gets others involved while recognizing opportunities and taking advantage of those opportunities to get his own shots off and make plays for himself.

“He’s a good player,” said Celtics head coach Brad Stevens who also coached Hayward in college at Butler. “And there’s going to be a curve. I think that 15 (points) on eight shots is pretty good when you consider how much we’re asking him to handle the ball and make plays for others. But you know, I think he’s … I think he’s done a lot of things in the last couple of weeks where you can see those, those steps are being made.”

While Hayward’s return to his pre-injury form isn’t quite there yet, he's clearly trending in the right direction.

“He’s going to come around,” said Boston’s Marcus Morris. “It’s a long season. I was happy to see him getting it going a bit.”

And while his play in overtime was among the keys to Boston getting the win, Hayward came through in the closing seconds of regulation with a pair of free throws that tied the game up and would serve as the final points scored in regulation.

Being on the floor when the game was on the line, it's something Hayward hasn't done much of as a Celtic. 

“It’s been a long time since I was in a situation like this,” Hayward acknowledged after the game. “Playing at the end of the game, with the crowd and the atmosphere and everything like that was amazing! That was a lot of fun. I’m glad that we came out on top.”

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