By Matthew Geagan, CBS Boston
BOSTON (CBS) — The Celtics have been a team in turmoil. They had dropped five of six heading into Tuesday night’s clash with the Warriors, and talk of a “toxic” atmosphere dominated the headlines for much of the day ahead of the matchup. Given all the dysfunction that has surrounded the team since the season tipped off, there wasn’t much faith that the Celtics would put up much of a fight against the defending NBA champs.
But then the Celtics went out played their best game of the season, blowing out the mighty Warriors on their home court to the tune of 128-95. They played for a full 48 minutes in a hostile environment against a great team, a perfect way to answer the doubt that has shrouded the team for the last few months.
It’s a big positive because the Celtics actually played well, but further fuels the frustration because it showed that the Celtics can, indeed, play well.
Golden State never led in the contest and the Boston defense made sure they never had a shot at a comeback. An engaged and enthusiastic Celtics team forced 21 turnovers and held the Warriors to just 40 percent shooting from the floor. Golden State has hit 38 percent of their threes this season, but was an abysmal 8-for-35 from downtown in the loss. And even with plenty of garbage time in the fourth quarter, the Celtics held the Warriors under the century mark on the scoreboard. It’s just the seventh time this season the Warriors have failed to score at least 100 points in a game.
Boston’s chemistry was burning on the offensive end as well, as they dished out 38 assists on 49 made baskets. Kyrie Irving tallied 11 helpers to go with his 19 points, while Gordon Hayward led all scorers with 30 points off the Boston bench. The Celtics shot 51 percent from the floor, and made things look startlingly easy against one of the NBA’s best teams.
The most important part of it all, though, is the Celtics looked like a team that actually enjoyed being a team. They had fun. They were smiling real smiles. They were genuinely cheering for each other. They even stood up for each other, showing some actual fight when some fight was needed. Add it all up, and the Celtics came away with their most convincing win of the season. It’s just unfortunate that most were sleeping during their best performance of the year, but maybe it’s the start of something good — finally.
Was this drubbing of the Warriors the flipping of the switch that Celtics fans have been patiently waiting for over the last few months? Has the team finally blocked out all the distractions, both inside and out, and focused on playing a good, winning brand of basketball? One win, no matter how big, does not turn around an entire season, so only time will tell.
But as it turns out, all the Celtics needed to fix their woes was to be confined to a small space with each other for five hours. Kyrie Irving credited their cross-country flight to their change in mentality.
“That long plane ride helped us out, I’ll just say that,” Irving said following Tuesday’s victory. “That long plane ride helped us out. We needed it. It was just we were going to get to a point where we were just going to get tired of fighting each other, fighting the outside world. And it doesn’t even really matter. So we just wanted to come out here and just play basketball. This is our sanctuary. And we have to do everything to protect it. We can’t let anybody infiltrate it.”
Maybe all of those team meetings the Celtics have held throughout the season should have taken place on a plane instead of the locker room.
Irving has had plenty to say as of late, making it clear that he is not enjoying the “business side” of the NBA at the moment. And not all of his comments have been very positive for the Celtics, further muddying an already disappointing campaign. But the star guard had a lengthy chat with Celtics head coach Brad Stevens during the flight, which made it a lot easier to just go out and ball on Tuesday.
“The business part of it is what makes it terrible for me, honestly dealing with all this [stuff]. I’m going to be honest with you guys. The basketball part – I have to keep that fun. That’s where I’m great, that’s where I love to play and be around my teammates, that’s what makes me happy,” said Irving. “The business part of it is going to be the business. Personal side of being out here with my teammates is the only thing that should matter. It wasn’t really a change of perspective, it was letting the guard down completely and just not thinking I’m at odds with everybody. It’s not a competition in this locker room, it’s a competition out there. That’s the most important thing.
“Talking with Brad was very helpful, talking with Danny [Ainge] was very helpful, and just expressing myself rather than keeping it all in,” he said. “That made it very easy to just go out and just have fun playing basketball.”
Getting Irving in the right frame of mind for the rest of the regular season and the playoffs is imperative if the Celtics want to have any success, but he’s only one piece to the puzzle. The Celtics need to fix the team from the inside out, which is no easy task with the playoffs just over a month away. But Tuesday’s win was a big step forward for a team that has too often been stuck in reverse.
“We’re moving in the right direction,” said guard Jaylen Brown, who had another stellar game with 18 points and his usual solid defense off the bench. “No matter what, we have to have the same positive mentality. Everybody has to look in the mirror, and that’s what we’ve been doing. Just trying to make a positive change and add to the group.”
Stevens said prior to the game there was a positive vibe around the team, the best it has been in a while. But good vibes only go so far, and playing well is what translates to wins. Boston played well on Tuesday, and it translated to a win.
“We know that we haven’t played like that enough,” Stevens said. “But it’s encouraging as a reminder that we can.”
Winning Tuesday was big for the Celtics, but now they have to keep moving forward. They’ll try to do so Wednesday night when they visit the surprising Sacramento Kings, who are 32-31 on the season and fighting for the eight-seed in the West.
Unfortunately for the Celtics, their trip from Oakland to Sacramento only requires a quick bus ride. Hopefully they can do a little more bonding on the way.