BOSTON — He had already heard the thundering ovation for teammate Gordon Hayward so, by the time Kyrie Irving stood up from the Boston bench for his own pregame introduction inside TD Garden, he couldn’t muffle his own smile.
For both Hayward and Irving, the superstar tandem that Celtics president of basketball operations Danny Ainge paired last summer with dreams of immediate title contention, it often felt like this day might never arrive. The two All-Stars both endured a pair of surgical procedures that sidelined them for Boston’s improbable run to the cusp of the NBA Finals and, in the case of Hayward, sapped just about his entire 2017-18 season.
So as Irving’s name was announced last, he walked slowly through the line of teammates with that smile, then joyfully launched into the air twice while a mosh pit formed around him.
Sure, Irving wished the next 48 minutes had been a little crisper for him. He endured a scoreless first half and made just 2 of 14 shots overall. Even while digesting Boston’s season-opening 105-87 stomping of the “rival” Sixers, Irving pondered returning to the Garden court after fans exited in order to shoot his way out of the opening-night slump.
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The seven assists in his box score and the contributions of his teammates allowed Irving to put off that shooting session until Wednesday’s offday. Tuesday night was simply a chance to savor the experience of playing meaningful basketball again.
“When you can’t make a damn shot, spread the wealth,” cracked Irving, who finished with seven points, four rebounds, and three turnovers but was plus-9 over 29 minutes.
"I just had a big smile when they announced my name again, and having Gordon out there, playing with Al [Horford] and [Jaylen Brown] and [Jayson Tatum] again. And just really getting a sense of playing for the Boston Celtics again. I had missed it so much. It was just like … “
Irving paused to exhale.
"Finally, I got this game out of the way. I’m just so grateful that I was out there with my teammates and coaching staff.”
Irving, wearing a feather given to him by his mother’s Standing Rock Sioux Tribe in his hair after Tuesday’s game, seemingly found peace this summer. In the aftermath of promoting his “Uncle Drew” movie, Irving was able to embrace a rare period of tranquility, his basketball activities limited while he rehabbed from the two knee surgeries that ended his first season in green in March.
Irving shocked the NBA world when he announced earlier this month that he intended to re-sign with the Celtics next summer. It eliminated a cloud of uncertainty that might have hovered over Boston’s season and allowed these Celtics to put their focus on what this talented roster can accomplish.
Even if they had played poorly Tuesday, the night still would have been a celebration. A chance for Irving and Hayward to savor being part of the this team again. And Boston celebrated with a win that looked little like the disheveled Celtics squad we saw in the postseason.
Before tipoff, the Celtics played a hype video that documented Hayward’s injury and his lengthy recovery. Hayward couldn’t ignore the clip as it played on the JumboTron and it served as a reminder of just how far he’s come in this long, taxing rehab.
“It brought back a lot of memories. A lot of dark memories and dark times. But, to be honest, it was kind of cool to see some of the progression,” said Hayward. “They showed a little bit of everything with me and, finally being back. It was cool watching it.”
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Alas, Hayward had done enough watching over the past 12 months. It was time to actually play and be part of some new memories. In a second-quarter stint with a mostly reserve unit, Hayward hit a pair of midrange jumpers — his first regular-season baskets inside TD Garden since joining the Celtics — and he seemed to be playing without the hesitation he showed at times during the preseason.
Hayward finished with 10 points on 4-of-12 shooting with five rebounds and four steals.
It’s a step towards a time when Hayward won’t be badgered with health questions after every game. But even Hayward admitted that he needed Tuesday to truly overcome the mental hurdle of returning to action after such a catastrophic injury. In fact, he couldn’t help but think about the past year as he prepared for tipoff.
“[The ankle injury on opening night last year] definitely crossed my mind warming up, and running out through the tunnel,” said Hayward. “Thinking about maybe not doing any lobs or backdoor plays. Sure, it went through my mind. A major part of my life at this point. Tried to just get it out of my head as soon as we started playing. Then it’s something that disappears.”
It was basketball that had disappeared for the past 12 months. No one expected Irving and Hayward to be perfect on Tuesday, and neither were.
But they were out on the court and, to them, that was perfect.
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