Kobe Bryant's death a reminder of the fragility of it all

Kobe Bryant's death a reminder of the fragility of it all

NEW ORLEANS — Gordon Hayward had managed to keep his emotions in check for much of a somber postgame media session on Sunday night.

He admitted he was heartbroken over the news of Kobe Bryant’s death, said he wouldn’t have been bothered if the NBA had canceled all the day’s games, and reflected fondly on the week he spent training with Bryant in Newport Beach in 2016.

“I still have all the e-mails saved,” said Hayward.

But then Hayward, father of three young girls, was asked about explaining the tragedy to his daughters and tears welled.

"I don’t think my daughters probably know what happened,” Hayward said. “But that’s why every time you leave you want to say goodbye. It’s been tough, it’s been tough.”

Blinking back tears, he hustled from a media session in which he had noted, "Being a father, my stomach was hurting. It still is hurting.”

LIVE stream the Celtics all season and get the latest news and analysis on all of your teams from NBC Sports Boston by downloading the My Teams App.

From the back of the media scrum, I stared at the text from my wife on my phone. My 10-year-old daughter, who I wasn’t even sure knew who Bryant was before today, was hysterical back home. She had questions about what happened to Bryant and his daughter, questions about why it made her so sad, questions about why I couldn’t be home with her on this day, questions about the safety of air travel.

So in a nearly empty Smoothie King Center, we FaceTimed and I did my best to provide answers. I explained how it made me sad, too. How I couldn’t fathom how some of these players did their jobs today. How I wanted nothing more to be home with her, her sister, and mom, at that very moment.

How when I hear Hayward talk about that awful feeling in his stomach, I can relate. I think we’re all dealing with it.

Flying to New Orleans on Sunday morning, there was a palpable energy about Boston’s first game against Zion Williamson. The Celtics are in the midst of a brutal stretch in which they will play 23 games in 42 days. They haven’t had more than one day off between games, all while cramming three back-to-backs this month, and it’s admittedly hard to get excited for every game in this avalanche.

But Sunday was going to be different. Williamson’s return last week made this a must-see matchup. In a dizzying January, this one would stand out. And then the TMZ story took over our Twitter feeds in the early afternoon and everything else seemed insignificant.

Just tweeting out lineup information seemed callous and unnecessary. The NBA elected to eliminate pregame access to allow players to process the day’s events and grieve, and the news was met with little protest from reporters.

As Brad Stevens tried to make sense of the day, just hours removed from the news, I couldn’t help but think about Stevens the father. The 43-year-old who enjoys nothing more than watching his teenage son play basketball or his 10-year-old daughter play soccer.

Stevens undoubtedly had the same knot in his stomach that Hayward did. He had the impossible task of trying to tell a locker room full of Kobe idolizers that they needed to focus on basketball.

“We’re not going to say anything about the game, we’ll just talk about why the game matters,” said Stevens.

The Celtics and Pelicans paid tribute to Bryant as best they could. There was a 24-second moment of silence with chants of “Kobe!” filling the arena when the shot clock on the JumboTron reached zero. Both Boston and New Orleans took 24-second violations on their first possessions as the crowd roared and again chanted his name.

For brief stretches, basketball was an OK diversion, though the energy didn’t come close to what we had envisioned on the flight down. Yes, every Williamson leap brought oohs and aahs but the day’s events lingered over everything.

Celtics players all seemed to put up a social media tribute for Bryant. Jayson Tatum, who worked out with Bryant last summer, had a particularly poignant one calling Bryant his hero and his idol. Tatum politely declined to chat with reporters after the game.

Jaylen Brown told the story after the game about how Tracy McGrady had been his favorite player growing up but, when it came time to ask his mother for tickets to a game, he demanded it be a Bryant game.

"Mentality, his thirst to win, all of that stuff that you saw and felt when he was out there. How he carried himself like a champion in everything he did, and that mindset is still going to remain forever, that Mamba Mentality is going to be around forever,” said Brown.

Added Brown: "He inspired so much and I’m just so sad that I never got to shake his hand. That’s what kills me the most. I was looking forward to that day. I never got to meet Kobe Bryant, never got to play against him, but extremely inspired and honored to just be able to play and be able to celebrate his name.”

Inside the Celtics’ locker room, Marcus Smart sat at his chair long after the game. Asked about Kobe’s passing, Smart said glumly that it still didn’t seem real.

“Still in shock and non-belief about the situation,” said Smart. "I mean, just what Kobe meant to this game of basketball, the things he did to open up passageways for guys, and just the hard work that he’s put in, the dedication that he’s given over the years, his life to the game. This is a tough one. It’s a tough one for anybody that grew up watching him, who’s a fan, who has a loved one, it’s tough.”

In the face of tragedy, we often hear how the basketball court is a sanctuary for many. But it just didn’t feel like it on Sunday.

As Hayward noted, "It was different today. I think being a father too, my heart is just broken, for his wife, his other daughters. I think everyone that’s a father understands that, or a mother, so it was difficult.”

My daughter proved that you didn’t even really need to know Bryant to be impacted by the tragedy. It’s a reminder to everyone to cherish the moments you have and understand the fragility of it all.

Sunday reminded us, yet again, that there are things that are just so much bigger than the next big game.

Don't miss NBC Sports Boston's coverage of Celtics-Heat, which begins Tuesday at 7 p.m. with Celtics Pregame Live. You can also stream it on the MyTeams App.

Celtics-Pelicans Takeaways: NBA suffered massive loss in Kobe Bryant's death

Celtics-Pelicans Takeaways: NBA suffered massive loss in Kobe Bryant's death

The Boston Celtics’ 123-108 loss to New Orleans hurt for sure. 

But the Celtics and the entire basketball world were suffering a much greater pain on Sunday following the death of Kobe Bryant and his 13-year-old daughter Gianna, who were among nine people killed in a helicopter crash in California on Sunday. 

Several teams honored Bryant’s memory on Sunday, with other franchises looking to do so going forward. 

Dallas Mavericks owner Mark Cuban said no player will ever wear No. 24 again for the Mavericks. Bryant wore jersey No. 24 and No. 8 during his 20 seasons with the Los Angeles Lakers.

LIVE stream the Celtics all season and get the latest news and analysis on all of your teams from NBC Sports Boston by downloading the My Teams App.

As for the Celtics, they found themselves in catch-up mode most of the night and went into the half trailing by 20 points. 

Boston was able to cut the deficit in half by the time the game moved on to the fourth quarter. 

But down the stretch, the Pelicans came up with all the big plays at both ends of the floor to secure what would be Zion Williamson’s first victory in a regular season NBA game. 

The loss snapped Boston’s three-game winning streak.

But the truth is, few Celtics fans - or fans in general - were giving much thought to wins and losses on this night. 

Regardless of who won or lost, Bryant’s death sent shockwaves throughout the basketball community that are still being felt and will continue to be felt for some time.

ZION WILLIAMSON

He still didn’t play major minutes, but that didn’t keep him from making a major impact. Williamson, in his third NBA game, tallied a double-double of 21 points and 11 rebounds in just 27 minutes. 

The scary part about Williamson's game is that he’s dominating the action in limited minutes while still learning lots of ins and outs of play. 

As he gets older and matures and better understands how to use his vast array of skills to be impactful, he'll become an even bigger nightmare for foes to deal with. 

KEMBA’S IN-GAME BOUNCEBACK

After a rugged start (zero points, 0-for-6 shooting in the first quarter), Walker bounced back with a strong night that put the Celtics within striking distance in the fourth quarter. 

But Walker couldn’t quite muster up enough big shots in order for the Celtics to get the win, despite leading all scorers with 35 points to go with five rebounds and four assists with two steals and a blocked shot.

The slow start by Walker (he wasn’t the only one struggling early on by the way) was among the factors that forced the Celtics to play from behind most of the night. 

INJURY ROULETTE

Jaylen Brown comes back to the lineup, but Jayson Tatum (groin) and Enes Kanter (hip) remain out. 

Sunday’s game was yet another night of injury roulette for the Celtics who continue to play most games short-handed with the missing player being one of their core, go-to guys. 

It makes it extremely difficult for the Celtics to develop continuity, or determine if the roster needs to be addressed prior to the trade deadline.

Celtics-Pelicans Instant Overreactions: How big of a problem is the C's rebounding?

Celtics-Pelicans Instant Overreactions: How big of a problem is the C's rebounding?

After trailing by 20 points at halftime against the New Orleans Pelicans, the Boston Celtics were able to cut the Pelicans lead to single digits a handful of times in the second half.

But ultimately, they weren't able to overcome the deficit and fell to the Pelicans.

The Celtics got 20+ point outings from Kemba Walker (35), Gordon Hayward (23), and Jaylen Brown (20), but they weren't able to get enough from the rest of the team to stay competitive against Zion Williamson and a rejuvenated-looking Pelicans squad.

Here are three instant overreactions from the C's loss, which drops them to 30-15 on the year.

1. Rebounding is a major issue for the Celtics

Verdict: Overreaction

The Celtics struggled mightily on the glass against the Pelicans. And two defensive possessions showcase that very well.

At one point in the game, Zion Williamson got to the rim and put up a shot. He missed it but kept putting up shots after getting three or four consecutive offensive rebounds. Williamson didn't ultimately get a bucket on the play, but the fact that he had so many chances was certainly a negative.

LIVE stream the Celtics all season and get the latest news and analysis on all of your teams from NBC Sports Boston by downloading the My Teams App.

And later in the first half, the Pelicans did convert on some of those offensive boards. On one possession, the team, once again, combined to grab three or four consecutive offensive boards and got up multiple shots before Josh Hart made a 3-pointer. It was a demoralizing possession for the Celtics and afforded the Pelicans a chance to continue to extend their already-growing lead.

For the game, the Pelicans had 54 boards while the Celtics just had 37. So on the surface, this would appear to be an issue.

However, there's one big counterpoint. Enes Kanter didn't play in the game. And neither did Jayson Tatum. The duo makes up the Celtics' best rebounding tandem and they combine for 15.1 boards per game. Without them, the Celtics have to play smaller, so that could explain why they struggled against a lanky Pelicans squad.

It's fair to want the Celtics to perform better on the glass. But they're less than a week away from outrebounding the Los Angeles Lakers by 12 when their team was almost fully healthy. They should overcome this issue when Kanter and Tatum are back.

2. Celtics need another scorer off the bench

Verdict: Not an overreaction

Obviously, there's a case to be made that the bench is stronger than they showcased on Sunday night. After all, when Tatum plays, Smart comes off the bench. And Kanter is one of the team's best scorers off the bench.

But still, the Celtics seem to be one contributor short when they have their full rotation available. And when they're not fully healthy, things can get ugly.

The Celtics bench scored just eight total points against the Pelicans. They shot 4-of-10 from the field and made zero of the four 3-point shots they attempted.

While guys like Javonte Green, Grant Williams, and Semi Ojeleye have upside, they haven't yet shown an ability to be consistent and willing scorers night in and night out.

It will be interesting to see if the Celtics try to make any trades before the Feb. 6 trade deadline. They are rumored to have an interest in Washington Wizards stretch-four Davis Bertans, but can they open up a roster spot to make a deal? And at what cost? We'll soon find out.

3. Vincent Poirier should see more playing time as long as Kanter is out

Verdict: Not an overreaction

As mentioned, one of the Celtics' biggest weaknesses in this contest was their inability to rebound. Part of that was their lacking size against a long Pelicans team.

That said, when the team put in Vincent Poirier to try out some new things in the third quarter against the Pelicans, the move paid dividends. Poirier played hard and his size bothered the Pelicans at the rim.

Poirier totaled two points, three boards, and a block in nine minutes of action. And that was huge for the team as they made their comeback push.

Poirier may be an NBA rookie, but he has Euroleague experience and was the league's leading rebounder before coming over to the Celtics. He may not always play perfectly, but in small spurts, he could help the Celtics offset their lacking length as long as Kanter is out.

If Poirier plays 10 minutes or so off the bench, that may help the Celtics have a better presence on the glass and on defense. Brad Stevens should at least consider getting Poirier into the game a bit earlier against the Miami Heat if the C's have issues again under the basket again.

And given that Stevens said Poirier was "excellent" after the contest, it seems likely that he will see more playing time.

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