Celtics

Celtics oral history: From disastrous start to spectacular ending?

Celtics oral history: From disastrous start to spectacular ending?

BOSTON –  While most of the build-up to the Celtics this season centered around Kyrie Irving and his unexpected parting of ways with Cleveland's LeBron James, there was another player whose arrival in Boston was seen by many in the organization as the linchpin to their quest to get back to the NBA Finals. 

It was Gordon Hayward, the most high-profile free agent Celtics president of basketball operations Danny Ainge has been able to convince to bring his talents to Boston.

“We came out of training camp feeling really good about our team and how far we could go,” Celtics forward Jaylen Brown told NBC Sports Boston. “And Gordon was a big part of what we were going to do. But as you know, things can change real quick in the NBA.”

Hayward's season came to an end just five minutes into the season-opener at Cleveland when he landed awkwardly and dislocated his left ankle.

"Everything changed when that happened," said Celtics guard Terry Rozier.

Hayward’s injury would be the first of many for the Celtics. 

While Hayward only scored two points this season, his injury – and how the Celtics handled themselves afterward – became the jumping off point for what has driven the team to achieve a level of a success that few outside their locker room believed was possible.

This is an oral history of how the devastation and disappointment of Hayward’s injury became a defining mantra of the Celtics’ season-long “Next Man Up” movement.

FALLOUT FROM HAYWARD’S FALL


There was a palatable uneasiness among the Quicken Loans Arena crowd as Hayward’s mangled ankle continued to be attended to by medical staff on hand.

Al Horford, with his hands on the side of his head, looked from a few feet away in disbelief.

Just a few steps to Horford’s right was Brown, hands on his head with a similar pose, trying to do what all in attendance at that moment were doing which is trying to make sense of one of the more gruesome injuries you will see in any sport.

No one knew for sure how bad Hayward’s injury would be, but all understood things were going to be different – very different – going forward.

Danny Ainge (Celtics president of basketball operations): “I just felt sick for Gordon. I know the sacrifices he made to come here to play, the time and work that he puts in to being great. My initial feeling was about him. And my second feeling was about his teammates and how excited they were to play with him. I felt bad for his teammates.”

Brad Stevens (Celtics coach): “Whether you play on the Celtics or play on the Cavs. Nobody wants to see that.”

Kyrie Irving (Celtics guard): “I think all hell broke loose for a little bit. Just like, what are they gonna look like?”

Jaylen Brown (Celtics guard/forward): “We were about to become a different team and to be honest, we didn’t really know what that team was gonna look like or play like.”

Daniel Theis (Celtics center): “He’s such a good player, could do so many things for the team. Him gone that soon, we had to come together really quickly.”
 
Semi Ojeleye (Celtics forward): “There wasn’t much to say when we huddled together near our bench, other than pray for him.”

Micah Shrewsberry (Celtics assistant, also worked with Hayward at Butler): “Hurt. A lot of hurt because I knew how much he had put into his game since Butler, and to finally get a chance to coach him again and to have that taken away so soon … you feel for him.”

Leading 12-9 at the time of Hayward’s injury, the Celtics’ early control soon disappeared. Cleveland went on a 20-7 run and would spend a good chunk of the first two quarters playing with a double-digit lead before ending the half ahead, 54-38.

HALFTIME


Jayson Tatum (Celtics forward): “Everybody was just thinking about Gordon. I had never seen anything like that. Everybody was real quiet. Nobody said too much.”

Shrewsberry: "We need to reassure these guys that we were going to be ok. Switch from being hurt, check on him, making sure he’s okay, to let’s make sure these guys are ok and continue to fight on. Nobody is going to feel sorry for us. We have to keep on.”

Brown: "It puts a lot of things in perspective especially when you see it with your own eyes. That could have been you. That was our first thought. Next was, where do we go from here? I said that in the locker room, there are two ways we could have went. We can use this as an excuse and let folks write us off, or we can come out and play some basketball. That’s what we’ve been doing all ear.”

NEXT UP: MILWAUKEE, PHILLY


Still dazed by Hayward’s injury, the Celtics didn’t have much time to mourn his absence. They had rallied to make it a game against Cleveland, but ultimately, the Cavaliers prevailed, 102-99. It was the first game of a back-to-back set to open the season for the C's. They followed that up with their home opener against Milwaukee and, like the Cavs game, Boston managed to be in the game, which included 14 lead changes and nine ties. Again, they came up short in a 108-100 loss to the Bucks, who closed with a 19-11 spurt that sent the Celtics to an 0-2 start with a much-needed day off before returning to play at Philadelphia.

In need of an additional body, the Celtics reached out to Jabari Bird, their second-round pick in the NBA draft who had signed a two-way contract.

He was with family and friends in California when he saw Hayward’s gruesome injury on television. Not too long after seeing that image, Bird got a call from his agent and Ainge telling him to meet the team in Boston.

Bird was being brought in for added depth, or so he thought.

Little did he know that he would be the one to usher in the Celtics’ “next man up” brand of basketball, playing suffocating defense on Sixers guard J.J. Redick in his 13-plus minutes – all coming in the second half -  that helped the Celtics get their first win.

Bird: “A couple days earlier, I’m on my couch watching the NBA and now I’m about to get in a game. It was a big shift. To have that experience is great, something I’ll always cherish.”

Brown (a former teammate of Bird at Cal): “A lot of people don’t give him credit for it, but he sparked us a lot to win that game against Philadelphia. He hasn’t had the opportunity since then really, but I know he’s scratching to get back on the floor.  I know he’s a good player. He’s gonna be a dog in this league. He just has to be ready for his opportunity when it comes.”

Rozier: “He’ll [Brad Stevens] do that. You don’t even have to play the first half but you need to be ready for the second half. You can sit the whole game...He’s smart and he’s good at what he does. I never question it. I used to a little bit my rookie year when I wasn’t playing. I think everybody does that. But I put my trust in him. He gets it done.

SWEET 16


The win over Philadelphia did more than give Boston its first win. It sparked an unprecedented run for a Stevens-coached team. They won 16 in a row to establish themselves as one of the top teams in the NBA.

Brown: “I don’t think we were thinking about it. At that point, there was no pressure on us. Nobody was saying Boston is the number one team. Nobody was saying that they’re gonna be a top-two team, top-five team. Nobody was saying any of this, so we were just out there hooping at that point.”

Shane Larkin (Celtics guard): “Obviously, we have a lot of star power that’s missing just because of the unfortunate circumstances of injuries. But we got a lot of guys who can play here. We have a lot of high draft picks, a lot of first-round picks. Danny [Ainge[ did a great job of putting together a roster for situations like this. You never want to have situations happen with the injuries, but we have a lot of guys in here who can step up and play. That’s what we’ve had to do all season, and we’re going to keep doing it until the wheels fall off.”

Ojeleye: “It was great that we just kept winning, but we kept doing it a little differently. That’s going to help all of us, knowing that anyone of us can step up and have a big game and help us win. It’s tough to stop a team when you don’t know where they are attacking you from, or who you need to key on.”

PLAYOFF TIME


So here we are, just days away from the start of the playoffs. And the Celtics are far from being at full strength, a reality that they have refused to let get in the way of winning.

That is what makes them both a dangerous foe that, despite what they may lack in star power, they more than compensate with toughness and a commitment to sticking with the game plan, even if they’re not necessarily the center or focal point.

Greg Monroe (Celtics center): “This is why I wanted to come here, and why most of the guys in this locker room want to be a part of; the playoffs. I don’t think this time for granted and neither will my teammates.”

Larkin: “We have a lot of guys in here who can step up and play. That’s what we’ve had to do all season, and we’re going to keep doing it until the wheels fall off.

Aron Baynes (Celtics center): "This is what it's all about. This is what the season has been about, getting to this point. Now it's time to lock in and focus on the task at hand.”

Al Horford (Celtics forward/center): “I understand there’s a lot of skepticism about our group. We haven’t done it before in the playoffs with the group we have right now. And that’s a great challenge. I’m real excited. We’re all looking forward to it, getting started.”

Marcus Morris (Celtics forward): “This team, we’re resilient. Every guy on this team, we all feel disrespected. Kyrie, Marcus [Smart], [Daniel] Theis, all those guys are major for our team. But they’re not here. We have to still approach the games as if we’ll win and get as far as we can. We have great coaches. That’s been really good for us. We’re ready to go. It’s enough talking.”

NBC SPORTS BOSTON SCHEDULE


 

Happy 31st birthday, Larry Bird vs. Dominique Wilkins Game 7 duel

Happy 31st birthday, Larry Bird vs. Dominique Wilkins Game 7 duel

Thirty-one years ago today, the old Boston Garden was the site of one of the great superstar duels the NBA has ever seen.

Larry Bird vs. Dominque Wilkins. Celtics vs. Hawks. Eastern Conference Semifinal Game 7.

On a Sunday afternoon, in the first of a Garden playoff doubleheader (the Bruins and Edmonton Oilers would play Game 3 of the Stanley Cup Final later that night), the two Hall of Famers staged a one-on-one battle to remember.

Bird and the Celtics came out on top, 118-116. Wilkins finished with 47 points - 12 in the fourth quarter - on 19-for-33 shooting. Bird had 20 of his 34 points in the fourth and was 15-for-24 for the game. And, in an ode to how different a game the NBA was then - each player only hit one 3-pointer. 

Tommy Heinsohn was the CBS analyst for the game with Brent Musburger doing the play-by-play. Former Celtics coach Doc Rivers was in Atlanta's backcourt. Heinsohn and Rivers looked back at the game with the voice of the Celtics.

Heinsohn: "Once it started to happen, you just saw the desire of both these players." 

Rivers: "The crowd here was amazing. I gotta tell you, I fell in love with the Celtic crowd in this game."

The Celtics would go on to lose to the Detroit Pistons in six games in the Eastern Conference Finals, but this game provided a lasting memory from that postseason.

Perhaps Musburger put it best after another late Bird drive and finish: "You are watching what greatness is all about."

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Marcus Smart 'honored' by All-Defensive selection, but has one goal in mind

Marcus Smart 'honored' by All-Defensive selection, but has one goal in mind

Marcus Smart's reaction to being named to the NBA All-Defensive First Team was not all that surprising.

“I was ecstatic,” Smart told NBC Sports Boston in a phone interview. “I’m definitely appreciative of being recognized for what I do defensively. But I’m not in this for awards or accolades. I want to win games, win a championship.”

And that made for a bittersweet time for Smart, happy for his own individual accomplishment but more than willing to trade it in for another round or two of basketball for the Celtics. 

Smart also tweeted his appreciation and his desire for a title rather than individual honors.

With each passing day since their playoff exit, there has been a growing sense of discord surrounding the Celtics' season, which ended with them being eliminated in the Eastern Conference semifinals in just five games by the Milwaukee Bucks. 

Smart has been vacationing since the season ended and said he has not heard or paid much attention to the talk surrounding what happened and didn’t happen with the Celtics' season.

In his end-of-the-season interview with the media, Smart didn’t hesitate in defending Kyrie Irving from criticisms that his leadership was a problem for the team. 

“That’s bull[expletive]," Smart said at the time. "Not one of us on this team knows what Kyrie’s been through. Probably a few people in this world know what Kyrie goes through. It was hard for him as well. He was forced into a situation where it was business over the friendships, where he had to come into a situation knowing that this is a group of guys that had something going before I come here, how will I fit in? He didn’t want to disrupt that. And that says a lot.

Smart added, “This is Kyrie Irving we’re talking about. And he’s talking about coming in and disrupting us. We took him in with full arms and we tried to understand it. Like I said, we never really understood. We’re not in his shoes. So that’s just a bull(expletive) statement to say his leadership killed us. There’s four other guys out there, there’s 12, 13 other guys on the team, coaches and everything. So to blame it on one guy is bull[expletive].”

Another heavily talked-about criticism of the Celtics this past season centered around them having too much talent and not enough playing time or prominent roles to go around to keep most of the players happy. 

Smart acknowledged the team’s overflow of depth was among the challenges the players and coaching staff tried to work through, to no avail. 

“We had a lot of talent; we were stacked, one through five,” Smart said. “It just didn’t work.”

As the longest-tenured Celtic, Smart, who was drafted fifth overall in 2014, has been around the organization long enough to know that Danny Ainge, the team’s president of basketball operations, will not stand pat this summer. 

Smart said he has no idea what changes will be made, but Ainge’s track record makes it pretty obvious that the Celtics will have a different look when training camp opens in a few months. 

Smart said his confidence level in Ainge is “real high” when it comes to adding talent,  but said, “That's Danny’s job. That’s for the front office to figure out. But I do believe Danny and those guys will figure out what we need to do to be better next season.”

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