LOS ANGELES — The Boston Celtics were up a point late in the first quarter of Saturday’s game against the Los Angeles Lakers when Rajon Rondo accelerated at the basket with Terry Rozier trying to stay attached to his hip. Defending near the baseline, Celtics All-Star point guard Kyrie Irving shuffled into Rondo’s path then braced for impact.
Collision. Whistle. Boston ball.
On a night in which Irving dazzled by scoring 30 points, all while playing with the familiar extra heaping of sizzle that a national TV game tends to pry out of him, the sequence was somewhat forgettable. But it encapsulated the renewed focus that both Irving and the Celtics have played with on a west coast road trip that has reinvigorated the team and its 2018-19 season.
Consider this: In the month of February, the Boston Celtics drew a total of three (THREE!) charges over 11 games. Maybe not coincidentally, the Celtics ranked 18th in the NBA in defensive rating in that span (this despite entering the month tied for second in the NBA in defensive rating).
The Celtics have absorbed six charges over the course of the first three games of this west coast road trip. Irving nearly got another one midway through the fourth quarter of a 16-point game but instead absorbed a LeBron James elbow to the face — and a shooting foul — for his troubles.
☘️ CELTICS 120, LAKERS 107
Make no mistake, the Celtics were far from perfect on the defensive end. But the theme here is effort. Irving raised eyebrows at the start of the year with a newfound commitment on the defensive end. Like many of his teammates, that intensity waned in what owner Wyc Grousbeck dubbed the “worst February" he could remember.
One day after Terry Rozier told NBC Sports Boston that these Celtics tend to feed off Irving’s energy and mood, it showed yet again on the court. And Irving acknowledged that it’s on him to set the tone for a Celtics team that yearns to be playing a high level of basketball when the playoffs arrive.
“Everybody has to step up but it starts with me,” said Irving. “It starts with my energy out there, and my spirit. When everyone’s on the same page, we’re a different team. We weren’t doing that consistently throughout this season, and now it’s more important than ever for us to have connectivity and be together, and that’s where my focus is.
"That helps me play at a high level, when all my teammates are playing at a high level.”
For all his very public missteps as a leader, this has been a banner week for Irving. His low-energy, low-word count media session on the heels of Sunday’s loss to the Houston Rockets had made it seem like the wheels were ready to fall off a Celtics wagon that had bumbled its way through an uneven season.
But then The Flight happened. As the Celtics started a near seven-hour cross-country trek following that Houston defeat, Irving implored teammates to take off their headphones and pass the time together. They played cards, they blared music, they talked, they laughed. By the time the team plane touched down in the Bay Area, many of the dark clouds hovering over the team seemed to be parting.
A solid thrashing of the defending champion Warriors, followed by a gritty Kyrie-less win in Sacramento, left these Celtics gushing with good vibes. It was jarring to those around the team just how rapidly the tenor and tone of the team had shifted.
But so, too, had the team’s play. The Celtics were more engaged at both ends of the court, more willing to fight through small bits of adversity. After weeks of pressing, Boston players let their natural abilities take over.
There is no reason to believe that a three-game road trip has steadied an otherwise wildly inconsistent season. The Celtics could very easily come unglued again before the postseason arrives. But they might just have discovered a bit of a blue print for playing a high level of basketball.
And it all starts with Kyrie.
“Just making a choice: Throw yourself in the game, throw yourself in the rest of the season, throw yourself in the team,” said Irving. "We have everything against us. For us, we’ve dealt with the expectations, we’ve dealt with the outside pressures influencing our locker room. There’s no more time for that. It’s about us and it’s about us competing and being well-organized every single time we’re out there. And, like I said, it starts with me.”
Celtics players have subtly — and not-so subtly — praised Irving’s leadership lately. It’s no coincidence that Irving, a bit moody since late January when his name got dragged into the Anthony Davis trade rumors and the speculation about his future reopened, has been as positive as any player on this west coast trip. He let his guard down a bit in San Francisco and seems to have found something in laying himself bare. While he’s repeatedly noted that all that matters now is the postseason, he’s clearly committed to trying to get this team on track for when the playoffs arrive.
“This stuff that happens in the regular season, people barely remember it,” said Irving. "When it comes to the playoffs, that’s where you want to be playing your best basketball.”
Later he added, "We have enough pieces, we have enough guys on this team to make a very deep run in the playoffs. Right now it just starts by just finishing off the regular season very, very strong, and feeling good in the playoffs. That’s where the fun is. That’s where you have the most fun.”
The regular season hasn’t been much fun for these Celtics. But they sure seem to have found something at a critical juncture. Gordon Hayward, who has put together another encouraging stretch, was asked after Saturday’s win if this team is in a good place.
"I feel like we’re on the right track,” said Hayward. "Certainly winning three in a row helps that. I think we still can improve a lot. There's definitely things we can do to make ourselves better. I’m sure we’re gonna have another time where we lose a couple games in a row and we just want to be playing our best basketball come playoff time and we’re certainly on that track right now. Hopefully we can keep it on that track.”
The Celtics need Hayward to be great. They need Al Horford to continue his torrid late-season play. They need Jayson Tatum and Jaylen Brown to find what made them special in the postseason last year.
But most of all they need to play with energy, focus, and desire. And that all starts with Kyrie.
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