Gordon Hayward

Christmas in August: Thoughts on Bruins, Celtics after their return

Christmas in August: Thoughts on Bruins, Celtics after their return

Winter sports are back at a furious pace.

If you're like me and spent much of the weekend absorbing constant NHL and NBA, the "Bruins and Celtics games" part of your brain is probably close to overheating after running for the first time in a while.

Don't miss NBC Sports Boston's coverage of Celtics-Heat, which begins Tuesday at 5:30 p.m. with Celtics Pregame Live followed by tip-off at 6:30 p.m. You can also stream the game on the MyTeams App.

Here are some thoughts from the B's and C's returning.  

♦ The best way to spin the Bruins' loss to the Flyers is to say that they don't care about seeding and were just easing back in.

I'll doubt that logic and just say they were horrible. Maybe the only positive was that the Coyle line looked good. Especially thanks to the play of Anders Bjork, that third line was a primary reason the Bruins probably came out of the first period feeling like the better team.

The rest? Whoof. Jack Studnicka did not look ready for a top-6 role and David Krejci seemed less than inspired; those could be related. The Bergeron line wasn't good; that for sure can't be a thing in the playoffs given the uncertainty of the rest of the lineup. The best team in the regular season still has no idea what its lines are and that's a major concern for me. 

♦ I thought the Flyers game was the Bruins' best chance at two points in the round robin. We’ll see how the Lightning and Capitals look today; it's possible the B's could win the next two, but we shouldn't be expecting the top seed anymore. 

♦ Jaroslav Halak was was on a long list of players who did not have it Sunday.

If Tuukka Rask was in net — especially on that fourth goal — alarms would be sounding, but then again he wasn't available with only two more chances to get prepared for the playoffs. Perhaps we should be sounding alarms either way.

Hopefully the Bruins can give Rask the next two games, because whoever they get in the first round is gonna be in playoff form. The Bruins are far from it right now. 

♦ By the end of the night, the Canadiens will either be tied with the Penguins or up two games to none and on the verge of pulling a major upset. I'd welcome the matchup if I were the Bruins, but they wouldn't get it in the first round anyway if they miss out on the top seed. 

♦ Sunday's Celtics game was hilarious, as is the fact that I’m not freaking out more over blowing a TWENTY-FOUR POINT LEAD. Why? Because Jaylen Brown had that “I decide who wins this game” mentality in the second half.

Brilliant, and he’s one of three guys I trust to do that on this team. 

♦ At 1-1 since returning, I feel good about the Celtics. Not because I'm happy that Kemba has played well despite being on a minutes restriction. That is what it is. I wasn't worried about Tatum stinking Friday; that seemed like a weird one-game thing, and it was. 

I feel good because of Gordon Hayward. He’s not on that short list of closers I just referenced and I'm not sure we'll ever stop asking if he is "back," but he's averaging 19.5 points and 8.5 rebounds through two games, both of which are well above his season averages.

I already think the Celtics are the team to beat in the East. If Kemba's knee is OK — which will remain an "if" every second of the postseason for me — and if Hayward plays like he's played, I'm even more convinced of it. 

♦ Overall, I think the NHL and NBA’s returns to play have been splendid. I got out when I could this weekend, but it was a lot of two-TV time with constant texting about which game to put on/which game was interesting gambling-wise. With no disrespect meant to other sports, these are leagues that had left so much unsettled, and it's finally happening in a way that grabs our attention all day.

What a beautiful thing. 

Celtics Talk Podcast: How much does a healthy Kemba Walker raise the Celtics’ ceiling? | Listen & subscribe | Watch on YouTube

Gordon Hayward's play, Jayson Tatum's passing impressive for Celtics

Gordon Hayward's play, Jayson Tatum's passing impressive for Celtics

One of the biggest questions facing the Boston Celtics coming into this reboot to the season was what will we see from Gordon Hayward. 

Just before the season was suspended on March 12, the 30-year-old Hayward was playing some of the best basketball of his time in Boston. And two games into the reboot, Hayward’s strong play remains very much alive and well. 

Jayson Tatum’s bounce-back performance in Boston’s 128-124 win over Portland along with Jaylen Brown’s dominant fourth quarter showing overshadowed in many respects what was yet another strong outing for Hayward. 

Don't miss NBC Sports Boston's coverage of Celtics-Heat, which begins Tuesday at 5:30 p.m. with Celtics Pregame Live followed by tip-off at 6:30 p.m. You can also stream the game on the MyTeams App.

Against the Blazers, Hayward had 22 points, eight rebounds and three assists. It was yet another impressive performance by Hayward, who has seemingly picked up where he left off in the first two games under the Orlando Bubble. 

Since the restart of the season, Hayward has averaged 19.5 points, 8.5 rebounds and 4.5 assists with an identical 50 percent shooting from 3-point range (4-for-8) as well as from the field (12-for-24).

But he isn’t the only Celtics player putting up good numbers lately. Here’s a look at some of the Green Team standouts, by the numbers:

5: The number of points Portland players scored when defended by Kemba Walker. More telling than the point total was the fact that those guarded by the 6-foot-1 Walker were a combined 2-for-10 shooting from the field. 

7: Second-chance points scored by Enes Kanter which was instrumental in Boston taking control early in the game. Kanter has been among the NBA’s best offensive rebounders throughout most of his career, with Sunday’s performance being no exception. Kanter’s seven second-chance points nearly matched the second-chance point total (10) of the entire Blazers squad.

8: Fast-break points scored by Jaylen Brown against the Blazers as part of his 30-point game, 16 of which came in the fourth quarter. Brown’s ability to get out and finish in transition was in sharp contrast to Portland, which had a total of just six fast-break points. 

15: Points scored by Boston off of screens set by Daniel Theis, who also managed to score nine points against Portland which included him making all four of his shots from the field. 

55: Passes (a team-high) made by Jayson Tatum against the Blazers. In addition to scoring a game-high 34 points, Tatum also dished out eight assists which was a career-high for the third-year forward. 

Celtics Talk Podcast: How much does a healthy Kemba Walker raise the Celtics’ ceiling? | Listen & subscribe | Watch on YouTube

Besides Jayson Tatum, which Celtics player is most critical to playoff success?

Besides Jayson Tatum, which Celtics player is most critical to playoff success?

The prompt for this playoff preview story essentially went something like this:

Editor: “We need you to write on the player most vital to Boston’s playoff success … “

Me (interrupting): “Jayson Tatum!”

Editor: “No, it can’t be Tatum.”

Me: “No, it’s clearly Tatum. His on/off splits are fascinating. The Celtics own a net rating of plus-10.3 in Tatum’s 2,043 minutes of court time, and that plummets to minus-1.0 in his 1,054 minutes on the bench. They’re essentially the Milwaukee Bucks with Tatum on the court and the Phoenix Suns when he’s not. Despite all of Boston’s collective talent, you need a singular superstar to carry you if you want a true shot at winning it all. The Celtics need Tatum to be that guy.”

Editor: "No, I meant you have to pick someone other than Tatum.”

Me: “Oh.” (ponders for a minute) “What about Marcus Smart?”

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Smart probably isn’t the first name that jumps to mind when you think of players who could dictate Boston’s bubble success. Even if you can't pick Tatum, you might eye starters like Kemba Walker, Jaylen Brown, or Gordon Hayward. Heck, there’s a case to be made for the importance of Daniel Theis, especially considering the center talent that Boston could encounter in the bubble playoffs.

But we can’t shake the notion that Smart could be particularly critical in this bubble format.

From being the team’s top ball-handling option behind Walker (and his balky knee), to his vocality in these empty gyms, to his ability to take a handful of defensive reps per game on some of the star big men that Boston will be tasked with slowing down, Smart’s fingerprints need to be all over the bubble if the Celtics are to reach their loftiest goals.

Put another way: Smart has to be a superstar in his role in order for the Celtics to thrive.

Sure, the Celtics don’t put up Tatum-like eye-popping splits with Smart on the floor but, as has been well-documented the past six seasons, stats don’t tell the story with Smart. It’s his energy, it’s his hustle, it’s his grit. It’s all the things that even advanced stats can’t quite quantify.

Even Smart's Celtics teammates believe his presence can raise Boston’s bubble ceiling.

“We've got a cheat code: Marcus Smart,” said Celtics big man Enes Kanter. "Fans out there, no fans out there, this guy is like unbelievable. I knew he was a good player before I joined the Celtics, right? I didn’t know he was this good of a teammate.

We can rely on him just to fire his team. I’ve played with so many different players, there’s only one more player like that in the league and that's Russell Westbrook. And now Marcus Smart. I have not see another player like those two.

Inside the unprecedented bubble environment, the Celtics desperately need someone like Smart. When Boston fizzled against Oklahoma City in its scrimmage opener, Celtics coach Brad Stevens repeatedly noted how Chris Paul’s voice dominated the game and implored his players to get louder. Smart doesn’t need an excuse to crank his volume and, even on the sideline, you can hear him barking out calls and encouragement from the Boston bench.

Smart may operate out of a reserve role but he will play starter-like minutes. He’s developed good pick-and-roll continuity with fellow reserve Kanter and saves some of his flashiest feeds for when the Turkish big man is rolling at the rim.

Celtics Talk Podcast: Do C's have bigger concerns than Giannis? | Listen & subscribe | Watch on YouTube

The Celtics need Smart to be a consistent 3-point threat. Over the last two playoffs, albeit while he was coming back from injuries, Smart shot just 20.3 percent beyond the arc, including just one make in 11 tries last season. He’s going to get open looks, especially if Stevens trots out the team’s “five best” lineup where Smart tags in for Theis and runs with the fellow starters.

But Smart’s greatest impact has to be on the defensive end. He has to be Boston’s defensive coordinator and the one that ensures the team doesn’t throttle down the intensity. The Celtics owned the NBA’s fourth best defensive rating before the season paused and boast the defensive versatility to really fluster opponents. Boston didn’t look that sharp on the defensive end in early scrimmages and must ratchet up that intensity to a Smart-like level when the games matter.

Stevens won’t hesitate to deploy Smart if the Celtics need help slowing down a big man. Smart logged nearly 8 minutes of matchup time against soon-to-be two-time MVP Giannis Antetokounmpo this season. The Greek Freak had as many turnovers (4) as field goals (4) in that span but also drew three shooting fouls. Even if it’s not a traditional 1-on-1 matchup, the Celtics can have Smart rush over to help double someone like Joel Embiid if they need to compensate for the size that Theis and the team’s undersized bigs might give up.

Smart is the simply the team's Swiss Army Knife. And it’s likely he’ll be asked to use each of his attachments inside the bubble. He doesn’t need to put up a loud stat line in Orlando but he needs to be loud, he has to raise Boston’s energy level, and he has to leave his imprint.

"Marcus, man, he gets himself fired up, he gets everybody else fired up around him, the coaching staff, the players, even like the ball boy gets fired up, the waterboy gets fired up,” said Kanter. "Everybody gets fired up when he’s around.”

By box score alone, Smart won’t be the most vital. But he will be extremely important to whatever the Celtics accomplish in Orlando.

Don't miss NBC Sports Boston's coverage of Celtics-Bucks, which begins Friday at 5:30 p.m. with Celtics Pregame Live followed by tip-off at 6:30 p.m. You can also stream on the MyTeams App.