OAKLAND, CALIF. — Brad Stevens sounded like a liaison from Earth in a science fiction flick, sent to space to explain human emotions to an alien race or a roving band of robots.
“You’re going to have fun in this business if you play well,” Stevens said before Boston’s 128-95 win over the Golden State Warriors on Tuesday night. “If you feel like you’ve done your job well. If you’ve left it all out there together, and you feel like you’re doing it with a group that’s playing as a group. … Winning is a big part of that equation. Sometimes that’s what fun means.”
During a maddening and inconsistent season, Boston has simmered with silent rage and occasionally boiled over. Teams as talented as the Celtics don’t usually speak so frankly about their collective shortcomings and internal turmoil. Teams with championship aspirations usually enjoy better interpersonal chemistry, or at least do a better job faking it, and they don’t usually need a refresher on happiness five weeks before the playoffs.
But these Celtics belong to Kyrie Irving, and they sway on his mood swings. When Irving is ripping off crossovers, draining tough jumpers and keeping the ball hopping, they look an awful lot like their preseason forecast: the best team in the NBA’s Eastern Conference. When Irving is fed up — with his supporting cast, or reporters, or social media, or the world — his team morphs into a group of hostages counting down the days to Cancun.
“The business part of [the job] is what makes it terrible for me, honestly,” Irving said. “Dealing with all this s---. The basketball part: I have to keep that fun. That’s where I’m great and that’s where I love to play, being around my teammates. That’s what makes me happy. The business part is going to be the business. The personal side being out here with my teammates is the only thing that should matter.”
The success of Boston’s season, the key parties agree, hinges on disposition.
“Our window of opportunity [in the playoffs] is going to be very small if we’re not really well connected,” Stevens said. “If we get there, we have a chance to be a pretty damn good team. If we don’t, we’ll make an early exit."
For a night, the Celtics played to their immense potential and dealt the defending champs their worst home loss since Coach Steve Kerr’s 2014 arrival. Boston delivered the type of collective excellence that screamed, “See you in June.”
Irving dazzled with 19 points and 11 assists, slithering past Kevin Durant for a pretty layup in transition. Jayson Tatum came alive, snatching the ball from Durant for an above-the-rim block and finding seams to the hoop. Jaylen Brown posed problems all night, attacking Golden State’s flimsy interior defense to finish with 18 points.
And then there was Gordon Hayward, who poured in 30 points, zipped into passing lanes for steals and looked like a strong candidate as the upcoming postseason’s biggest X-factor. Throughout most of the season, Hayward has performed as one of the league’s most overpaid players — understandable given that he is still recovering from a gruesome leg injury that ended his 2017-18 season on opening night.
On Tuesday, he looked confident and purposeful, flashing the two-way game and shooting ability that made him a hot commodity in free agency two summers ago.
“We’ve got to build off this one,” Hayward said. “When we’re moving the ball and moving bodies, it’s hard for [the defense] to catch up to us.”
There was a shared hesitancy to make too much of a single win — even one this emphatic against top competition. Stevens said the Warriors would probably write off the game as an off night. Irving noted that Klay Thompson was out injured. And Hayward admitted to ongoing mental struggles, sounding guarded against the possibility of a setback or a letdown against the Sacramento Kings on Wednesday night.
But Stevens’s back-to-the-basics message seemed to resonate, at least temporarily, with its most important target. Irving cited recent conversations with his coach and Celtics President Danny Ainge — as well as bonding time on the cross-country flight to Oakland — for refocusing his attention on his leadership role.
“It’s my job to show these guys, to be at that [same] type of level on a consistent basis,” Irving said. “With my attitude and my effort, to be able to give confidence to these guys, it’s just as important as me being who I am supposed to be. … It’s not a competition in this locker room. It’s competition out there when we’re going to war.”
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