DENVER — It’s become an all-too-familiar scene for these Boston Celtics the past 25 months. Players huddled solemnly around an injured teammate hoping for the best.
There was Gordon Hayward’s ankle injury on opening night of the 2017-18 season, then Jaylen Brown slipped off the rim and crashed onto his upper back in Minnesota last March. On Friday, Kemba Walker endured a scary collision with teammate Semi Ojeleye that led to him being immobilized and stretchered off the floor at the Pepsi Center.
When Brown stepped in front of reporters after Boston’s late-game rally came up short in a 96-92 loss to the Denver Nuggets, he brushed aside an initial query and offered a question of his own: How’s Kemba?
Told he was being evaluated for concussion-like symptoms, the same diagnosis that Brown was fortunate to receive after his scary fall, Brown exhaled a bit.
"Obviously, our thoughts are with him, make sure his health is prioritized and stuff like that,” said Brown. "I’ve been through a similar injury that gives everybody a little bit of a scare. Support is what's important. Our prayers and our energy are definitely with him today.”
Even with small bits of encouraging news filtering in, including Brad Stevens talking to a more coherent Walker before an ambulance took him to a local hospital for further evaluation, the Celtics were given the impossible task of trying to shift their focus back to basketball.
Brown admitted it wasn’t easy. Not after what he had seen.
"The look in [Walker’s] eyes made everybody a little bit uneasy,” said Brown. "I’m glad to hear it wasn't anything to do with his spine or anything that was career-ending or anything like that. I pray it isn't. I hope everything checks out and he gets the rest he needs, and we'll welcome him back.”
While the game became secondary in nature, the Celtics showed an awful lot of resolve in fighting back from as much as a 19-point deficit to pull within 1 in the final minutes. The Nuggets fended off their charge but Stevens was palpably inspired by the way his team responded.
It was experienced players like Brown, Jayson Tatum, Marcus Smart, Brad Wanamaker, and Robert Williams that nearly willed this team back. And the grit they showed under the circumstances was a teachable moment for Stevens.
"I just told the team just now, there’s a lot of things we could do better. I thought we all tried things maybe outside of our strength at times, and that’s not how you win when guys are out,” said Stevens. "You win by doing everything a little bit harder and a little bit better. And then you saw that at the end of the game. I told the new guys, who are showing signs of this, but I told them the guys that are holdovers here, those dudes are warriors. I mean, to come back in that game, on the last day of the trip, after seeing Kemba go down, in Denver, against that team, and give us a chance to win?
There’s two things that have become abundantly clear early in the 2019-20 season for these Boston Celtics:
1) These guys really like each other and are genuinely invested in one another. That started with the four veterans who trekked overseas for Team USA and got a jump-start on the bonding process. But it’s also permeated a tight-knit group of rookies, and everyone else in between. These players care about each other’s well-being, celebrate each other’s successes, and don’t point fingers at each other when things don’t go their way.
2) This team operates with a certain grit and spunk that so clearly defined Stevens’ teams before last season. This group has routinely battled back from large deficits, they’ve powered through injuries that have now taken two key players off the court, and they just always find a way to compete. Boston’s three losses on this west coast trip were by a combined 8 points. While they’ll travel home Saturday packing a disappointing 2-3 record and have to worry about how long yet another All-Star will be sidelined, they are unlikely to feel sorry for themselves and instead embrace the challenges ahead.
Go ahead and connect the dots on all this. It’s fitting that, on Friday night, we also learned that Kyrie Irving would not be making the trip back to Boston for Wednesday night’s visit from the Brooklyn Nets. No, the shoulder injury that has plagued Irving will keep him sidelined as his team travels to both Boston and Cleveland, another location he’s routinely avoided since the trade that originally delivered him to the Celtics.
These aren't last year’s Celtics. Last year’s team didn’t know how to fight through adversity. Last year’s team cared more about individual success than accomplishing team goals.
This team is different. And it’s moments like Friday night that really hammer it home.
The Celtics learned a lot about themselves this trip. They know they are better than the record out west suggests. They’ve got to get healthy and they’ll cross their fingers for more good news about Walker, all while Hayward starts shooting again back home while recovering from a hand fracture.
There’s brighter days ahead. If Boston can endure all these bumps in the road, they’re going to be well prepared for the challenges that await further out. But moments like Friday night show us they’re truly ready for anything because they’ve got each other.
Don’t miss NBC Sports Boston's coverage of Celtics-Kings, which tips off Monday at 7 p.m. ET with Celtics Pregame Live, then Mike & Tommy have the call of the game at 7:30 p.m. You can also stream the game through the MyTeams App.