BOSTON — One of the hallmarks of last year’s Boston Celtics team was an ability for others to step up when a star was missing. It’s what propelled the Celtics to the doorstep of the NBA Finals, the way younger players were able to fill the shoes of injured All-Stars like Kyrie Irving and Gordon Hayward.
But as the Celtics have navigated an uneven start to the 2018-19 season, one of the big questions was whether they could stay afloat without a star like Irving. Boston’s point guard, healthy again this season, has been otherworldly and the team’s offensive rating has taken a nosedive when he’s not on the floor. So there was reason for concern when Irving got raked across both eyes during Monday’s loss in San Antonio.
Enter Hayward and Terry Rozier, two of the more maligned players on this year’s squad. Hayward was coming off a 0-point performance against the Spurs, the latest head-scratching night in a season in which he’s routinely fought his own shot, while Rozier has found himself in the crosshairs for much of Boston’s second-unit struggles, unable to consistently harness the sort of impact he produced in an elevated role during Irving’s absence last postseason.
On Wednesday night, Hayward scored a season-high 35 points on red-hot 14-of-18 shooting while Rozier set the tone with a loud first quarter en route to a 16-point, 5-assist, 5-steal night during Boston’s 115-102 triumph over the Minnesota Timberwolves.
The Wolves looked indifferent at times, including when Marcus Smart straight up mugged a ball-handler who was trying to call a simple midcourt timeout, and instead turned it into an alley-oop slam. Boston pushed its lead as high as 22 then hung on in the second half, particularly as Karl-Anthony Towns tried to singlehandedly will Minnesota back.
On a normal night, the Celtics might not have had the offensive output to fend off the Wolves. But Hayward couldn’t miss — an encouraging sign for a player who entered shooting 31.1 percent beyond the arc and 39.7 percent from the field overall. Hayward didn’t even register his first field goal until the second quarter and then the floodgates seemed to open from there.
"Well, we have a lot of talent and sometimes, with so much talent, there’s just not as much responsibility,” said Hayward. "That’s just the nature of the team. So there’s not as much opportunity and it’s going to be a different guy on a different night. [Jaylen Brown] had 30 against San Antonio. So I think, hopefully, if somebody isn’t having a good night, somebody else can step up.
"But when we’re all playing well and we’re all moving the basketball, that’s a lot of fun. It’s a lot of fun to play like that.”
Rozier, who entered as the Celtics’ only player with a negative net rating for the season, was fantastic in a starting role. He scored 11 first-quarter points on 5-of-5 shooting and gave Boston early confidence.
Asked about his mindset as a starter, a matter-of-fact Rozier answered, "Go out there and kill.”
Later he added, “My job is easy. Just go out there and play hard. Like I said, kill. My teammates and my coaches do a great job of giving me that confidence.”
Pressed on the difference between Starter Terry and Bench Terry and whether he’d gotten some of that playoff mojo back, a straight-faced Rozier said, "Yeah, it’s a new year, so new me.”
There was never doubt that these Celtics had the talent but they’ve so infrequently been able to get most of their roster going at the same time this year. And even the tiniest of lapses has caused wins to slip away.
But on a night the Celtics didn’t have Irving and an already quiet Marcus Morris sat out most of the fourth quarter with a sore neck, the Celtics got key contributions from the players who have most often drawn the ire of an impatient fan base.
Hayward, who had a 30/9/8 game against Minnesota last month, shrugged off his dominance of the Wolves. He credited Marcus Smart with getting him going early, feeding him on his first make of the night. But Hayward said the key for him was simply being aggressive and not allowing the 0-fer in San Antonio to fester.
"Any time you have a game like I did last game, you want to come out and just be ultra-aggressive,” said Hayward.
Teammates Guerschon Yabusele and Al Horford reprised their roles from the Minnesota visit and dumped water on Hayward’s previously pristine locks during his walkoff interview with ESPN.
This season, Hayward hasn’t always been able to produce the first-step explosion that helped make him an All-Star in Utah. But he looked a lot more confident in all facets after his shots started falling on Wednesday.
"I think, as the season goes on, I think my movement is getting better,” said Hayward. "I think there are still so many things to work on. In [the past] two games, night and day. So consistency is going to be huge to have -- it’s not games like this all the time, it’s just staying aggressive and attack, as opposed to being passive.”
For Hayward and Rozier, it’s all about finding that sweet spot. Both players have been guilty of pressing too hard in more limited minutes but seemed to play more free knowing they’d have a longer leash on Wednesday night.
Now the key is being able to impact games more consistently, even when the shots aren’t falling. And not only while Irving is sidelined by the eye irritation but especially when he’s back.
If the Celtics can get Rozier and Hayward to be even a milder version of what we saw Wednesday, then this team is going to look more like the Eastern Conference power they were expected to be, and not the team that has lagged fifth in the conference for most of the early part of the season.
They might look more like the team we were expecting to see after last year’s playoff run.
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