OKLAHOMA CITY — The entire Boston bench was already standing when Al Horford caught the ball alone at the top of the arc and Jayson Tatum, a towel slung around his neck, fanned out his long arms to box out the rest of the Boston subs who were creeping towards the court as Horford launched his shot.
And when that shot crashed through the cylinder — Horford’s third triple in a dizzying 41-second span — there was unadulterated joy. Injured Aron Baynes stood up on his sore hamstring and repeatedly thrust three fingers in the air. Guerschon Yabusele excitedly snapped a towel at his side. Semi Ojeleye bounced up and down with his hands skyward.
The Celtics have spent the first two weeks of the NBA season looking stiff. Shots didn’t fall — as accentuated by the 11 triples that Boston bricked in the first half of Thursday’s game — and players were pelted with questions about why these Celtics were failing to live up to their lofty expectations.
But as Horford morphed into a 6-foot-10 Steph Curry for a hot minute, Boston found a joy it so clearly lacked.
It was Tatum, who typically speaks in little more than a deep-voiced whisper, who marched towards midcourt after Horford’s third triple and, in a hushed arena, bellowed, “Yeah, Al!” with three fingers raised.
Horford's outburst fueled a 40-point third-quarter outburst and helped the Celtics rally from a 16-point deficit for a rather improbable 101-95 triumph over the Oklahoma City Thunder at Chesapeake Energy Arena.
Boston had reached a new nadir Thursday with an anemic 34-point first-half output. Right before the end of the second quarter, Kyrie Irving pulled Horford aside and said the duo had to be more aggressive and set a tone for the team.
Then they did. Horford scored 11 third-quarter points, while Irving cranked his own intensity level, first giving the team an offensive jolt at the start of the second half then providing all the fourth-quarter hustle plays that gave Boston an opportunity to steal the win. Marcus Morris gave the team a bit jolt off the bench and hit a key go-ahead 3-pointer as part of Boston’s 16-1 run to close the game.
What exactly did Irving tell Horford?
“Stop overthinking about how we’re supposed to be playing,” said Irving. "I think it’s just a new challenge for all of us. It really just comes down to our attitude. And that’s what we all talked about in the locker room, just having fun out there and supporting one another.
"It’s a hard thing to hold onto of being a certain way for a certain amount of time in your career and then when you come into a situation like this where you’re playing with a lot of good players sometimes you can dim down how special you are or overthink how you’re supposed to be playing. So I think for us we just all wanted to come out and just really have fun.”
Having fun. It sounds so utterly simple. And yet the burden of expectations combined with Boston’s early struggles left this team encumbered. As the rest of the NBA routinely put up 140-point nights, the Celtics labored to simply get near triple digits. And all their misses left players frustrated and, in turn, made them press on the court.
Horford’s outburst was utterly absurd when you consider it took him four NBA seasons and roughly 10,000 minutes of floor time to make the first three 3-pointers of his career. Even as he’s made the 3-point shot a weapon in recent years, it’s not very Horford-like for him to just fire away.
And so Horford had to fight himself to be selfish. On the first triple, Horford had Marcus Morris wide open to his left and Morris looks almost stunned that the ball didn’t swing his way. Next trip down, Horford got to the same spot and was able to fire quickly before Steven Adams could rush to contest.
When Adams elected to clog up the paint on the next trip down, Horford didn’t hesitate to shoot again.
"It's different but it's something that Kyrie talked about. It's like, we need to be more aggressive on offense,” said Horford. "And with so many moving pieces that we have and Gordon [Hayward] and everybody, it's like I'm trying to kind of find my way and play team ball.
"But we had to get this win tonight.”
If the Celtics simply revert to bad habits on Saturday in Detroit, then Thursday’s efforts will be merely a feel-good moment to an uneven start to the season. But there was obvious hope in Boston’s locker room that maybe just maybe Thursday’s game might get them out of their own heads. Instead of overthinking everything, this team simply let its talents take over.
"in the second half we looked like ourselves, which is encouraging,” said coach Brad Stevens.
It was the 20-year-old Tatum whose admittance that Boston was too tight that spoke volumes in the aftermath of the win.
"Honestly, guys were frustrated,” said Tatum. "We weren’t hitting shots, and Brad came in the locker room and told us we were getting good shots, we were playing good D for the most part. We were just too tense. Nobody was smiling, nobody was having any fun.
"That was the difference in the second half.”
The Celtics won a big early season game in Oklahoma City a year ago with the Irving/Horford combo leading the way. It gave the team some extra fuel during a 16-game winning streak.
Greedily, Tatum wonders if the same could happen again.
“It kind of feels the same,” said Tatum. "Hopefully we can win 18 in a row. That would be nice.”
Irving would settle for simply parlaying some of Thursday’s joy into an inspired stretch of basketball.
"It just feels good to kind of get this one out of the way,” said Irving. “Now we can move forward and just have fun playing basketball.”
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