BOSTON — In the immediate aftermath of Gordon Hayward’s freak ankle injury, the Boston Celtics were rattled and uncertain how to respond. As pundits raced to adjust Boston’s season expectations, Celtics players themselves couldn’t help but hear the noise and wonder whether their own goals had to be tempered.
Maybe not surprisingly, the calming voice in the room came from head coach Brad Stevens, who told his team to simply focus on the next possession and everything would take care of itself from there.
On Monday night, the Celtics won their NBA-best fifth straight game while taking down a San Antonio Spurs team that Boston hadn’t beaten since March 2011. Oh sure, the Spurs were playing without Kawhi Leonard and Manu Ginobili and Tony Parker. The Celtics know better than anyone now that you can’t feel sorry for yourself because of injuries.
So in the aftermath of a 108-94 triumph at TD Garden, there was a newfound buzz in the Boston locker room. The uncertainty that existed after an 0-2 start, including a loss to the Milwaukee Bucks in the home opener, had been washed away by the potential seen in five straight wins.
“Once [the Hayward injury] happened, we really didn’t know where we were at as a group,” said Al Horford, the 31-year-old elder statesman who had 14 points and 13 rebounds in Monday’s victory. “But I felt like we’ve really come together and we’re trying to take it day by day. Jjust listening to Coach, and he’s steering us the right way.”
By now you’re aware of all the challenges facing Stevens this season. Even before the Hayward injury, Boston had an impossibly fledgling roster after an unprecedented overhaul of a 53-win team. And six minutes into the 2017-18 season, things could have easily slipped away from the Celtics.
But there’s a reason that Stevens is so revered by his players and the rest of the NBA coaching fraternity. As he drove to the arena in the days after Hayward’s injury, his thoughts raced about how to best deploy his remaining talent. And yet, Stevens also phoned Hayward with hopes of rallying his spirits as he braced for a lengthy rehab.
Leaning heavy on his youngest players, including G League call-up Jabari Bird, Stevens watched his team grind out an ugly win in Philadelphia for the team’s first W of the season. A much-needed laugher followed against the Knicks. Boston earned a little revenge over the home-opener spoiling Bucks on Thursday night during their “Return to the Mecca” night in Milwaukee, then scrapped out another win in Miami two nights later.
Monday’s win, no matter how shorthanded the Spurs were, was extremely satisfying. Stevens had been 0-8 against sensei Gregg Popovich, and it was almost jarring to see Boston fans gleefully streaming to the exits with Boston up double digits in the fourth quarter.
Kyrie Irving turned in his third consecutive 24-point effort, and was mesmerizing over the first 30 minutes of the game; second-year forward Jaylen Brown chipped in 18 points; rookie Jayson Tatum overcame shooting woes to grab 11 rebounds while using his length to fluster the Spurs defensively; and Terry Rozier had a dizzying fourth-quarter stretch in which he got “NBA Jam” hot following a woeful shooting start.
The Celtics exited their locker room Monday night with a 5-2 record and a spot atop the Eastern Conference.
While it’s not unusual for Stevens and Popovich to throw verbal bouquets at each other before a Celtics-Spurs meeting, you get the feeling Popovich has a great appreciation for the way Stevens has kept this team afloat in the infancy of the 2017-18 season.
“[Stevens] is a special person, on and off the court,” Popovich said before Monday’s game. “He’s very intelligent and intelligence is fine, but, if it doesn’t come along with incisiveness, judgment and an emotional maturity, it doesn’t do you much good. He has all of those things, and that’s large. Not that many people have that.
“It shows in the way he handles people and the way he coaches. He’s going to be a great one before it’s all over with, and he’s already a hell of a coach.”
Stevens had already declared how Popovich is “at the top of the profession,” but Stevens denied his pal a win that would have left Popovich tied with Phil Jackson in career wins. That will come soon enough.
Stevens is a lot further down that career win list, but it’s nights like these that remind you just how good the 41-year-old coach is.
Toward the end of his postgame media conference, Stevens was asked about how Tatum overcame one of his first poor shooting nights to impact the game in other ways. His answer revealed a lot about how Boston has persevered after Hayward’s injury.
“It’s all about how you respond,” Stevens said. “Whether it’s minute-to-minute or game-to-game.”
In typical Stevens fashion, his team won’t get content with simply righting its ship for a handful of games.
“Brad is still figuring out just the rotation and where guys are going to be filling in, but every single game is a chance for us to continue to get better and depend on one another,” Irving said. “And I feel like we’re doing a great job of that.
“I admire all these guys’ talents. They know. They probably won’t tell you, but I’ve been watching these guys for a long time. When Terry was at prep school and JB was in high school playing at City of Palms … and [Tatum], seeing him since junior year, I’ve studied all these guys’ games even before I came here. So getting a chance to play with them, it took me a few weeks to adjust. And I’m still adjusting. But they make it a lot easier for me.”
The Celtics are still adjusting, but Stevens has made it a lot easier on all of them.