BOSTON - When the Celtics gathered for training camp last fall, there was no need for “Hello My Name Is” stickers.
The core of the previous season’s squad, as well as the majority of the team’s fringe players, was back and created an image of a near-perfect roster built to contend for an NBA title.
Of course, with each new season comes a new set of challenges, even if all the puzzle pieces remain the same.
That brings us to the Celtics of today, a team whose collective pieces are finally starting to fit neatly together with wins in three of their past four games, which includes handing two-time defending NBA champion Golden State Warriors one of their worst home losses ever.
It’s not a huge sample size, but there’s no getting around the fact that this Celtics team, while still one with flaws, discovered a level of connectivity with one another that hadn’t been present prior to their just-completed, four-game road trip.
And that improved togetherness centers around two players - Gordon Hayward and Kyrie Irving - who as it turned out, weren’t available to play due to injuries in the playoffs last season when the bond among this team’s core group was seemingly at its strongest.
Still, the trip out West has proven to be a unifying experience, highlighted by the play of Hayward and the improved presence of Irving beyond what he does on the floor night in and night out.
And the changes we saw in both players out West has raised the level of optimism surrounding this team. Instead of a team viewed as a puzzled bunch of ballers, it now resembles a cohesive squad with a legit shot at having its season-long journey end with a trip to the NBA Finals.
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Boston has plenty of ground to cover and games to be played between now and then, a stretch that continues at home tonight against the Sacramento Kings.
This will be the second and final meeting between these two. The first matchup a week ago in Sacramento ended with the Celtics prevailing 111-109 on Hayward's winning shot in the final seconds.
When you talk about puzzle pieces fitting together, Hayward is a good jumping off point.
For most of this season, he has been a work in progress following a season-ending injury in 2017.
Hayward will be the first to tell you that his play, much like the Celtics as a group, has had stock market-like peaks and valleys filled with dips in play often followed by stretches of dominance.
But the Celtics’ West Coast trip was the closest Hayward has been to his pre-injury self since returning, not just because of the numbers, but the impact his play had on winning games.
He scored 30 points in Boston’s 33-point beatdown of the Warriors.
He didn’t have nearly as big a scoring night against the Kings the following night, but he came through when it mattered by draining a baseline, fadeaway jumper for the win.
Hayward followed up that game-winner with a 15-point performance in the victory over the Los Angeles Lakers and like most of the Celtics, Hayward struggled in the team’s 25-point loss to the Clippers in the four-game trip’s finale.
But even with a string of solid games under his belt, Hayward remains cautiously optimistic when it comes to discussing his play going forward.
After his game-winner, Hayward didn’t make a big deal about what the shot meant for him and instead talked more about what it meant to the Celtics.
“We’ve had ups and downs [this season]; it’s been a roller coaster,” Hayward said. “We want to be on an up when we get to the playoffs. We all know that’s coming up. We have to be playing our best basketball.”
And leading that charge, more than anyone else, is Irving.
In what has been arguably his best season in the NBA, the six-time All-Star may have undergone the most dramatic change between the time the Celtics left for the West Coast and once they arrived.
“Ky’s our leader,” backup point guard Terry Rozier told NBC Sports Boston. “When he’s in a great mood and feeling good we’re harder to beat. It’s contagious. It rubs off on everybody else. Sometimes when he’s not like that, it can get everybody uptight. The way he’s been acting has been great; it’s been good for us.”
Said Irving: “We just want to play well. Everybody has to step up. But it starts with me and it starts with my energy out there and my spirit. When everyone is on the same page, we’re a different team. We weren’t doing that consistently throughout this season and now it’s more important than ever for us to have connectivity and be together and that’s where my focus is.”
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And Irving’s mindset coupled with Hayward’s improved play may be the final pieces of the puzzle to form the picture-perfect roster capable of achieving the Celtics’ ultimate goal this season - bringing home Banner 18.
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