BOSTON, MA — If there’s anyone who can appreciate the true power of the Celtics mystique, it’s Luke Walton.
The Lakers head coach grew up with a father who lived and breathed everything Celtics in the relatively short time he was in town. Bill Walton was all about putting on the uniform of the best franchise in basketball history and suddenly transform into a transcendent power on the parquet.
But Bill Walton was about much more than just tie dyes, Grateful Dead concerts and hiking mountains. He played through intense pain his entire career.
The Celtics have had a long and illustrious history of fighting through adversity, on and off the court.
That’s why when Luke heard about the loss of Al Horford to a concussion before Wednesday’s game and the loss of Jayson Tatum midway through the contest with his Lakers, he knew these Celtics were likely going to respond true to their embedded DNA.
Sure enough, the Celtics - thanks to the purely magical and sensational effort of Kyrie Irving - came out firing on all cylinders, racing out to a 33-16 first quarter lead, capped by Terry Rozier’s bank three from 30 feet. The Lakers recovered slowly but surely over the next two periods but could never climb the mountain and fell, 107-96, becoming Boston’s 10th straight victim.
“They were ready for the fight and we weren’t,” Walton said. “We felt like in the first quarter, they punk’d us. They were bigger than us, they were stronger than us. We had a couple good defensive possessions that they just went and took 50/50 balls on, and then hit three’s out of. But after that I feel like we engaged nicely in the fight from there on, we just didn’t do smart things. We played hard enough from the second quarter on to win, but we didn’t play smart enough – and against a good team, it’s near impossible that’s the type of game that you have.”
The Celtics will, no doubt, hit some sort of wall, whether its a tipping point of injuries or just running into a hot team on the wrong night. It’s going to happen. But what’s remarkable about this run is how the Celtics have turned injury adversity into mental toughness. That’s a trait that might have been lacking just a bit when they ran up against the bigger, stronger Cavaliers in the Eastern finals last spring.
Andrew Bogut returned to the Lakers Wednesday night after a three-game absence due to a bad back. He was supposed to be the answer to Boston’s Aron Baynes Wednesday. He played 5 minutes, 34 seconds, 10 fewer seconds than Boston’s Shane Larkin.
“We needed some toughness out there, and Bogut’s a big tough man,” Walton added. “To me offensively, we were playing a little selfish and defensively we were getting ‘big boy’d’ on the court.”
Celtics coach Brad Stevens had a slightly different take on Boston’s NBA-record 10th straight win after two losses to begin the season.
“I thought that we made timely plays,” Stevens said. “I didn’t think we necessarily played good basketball the whole last thirty minutes or so, but we got – we got a little caught up in the flair of the game, probably, in the second quarter. And I thought the end of the second quarter was bad. But after that, for the next two quarters, we made timely plays.”
Timely plays and two bigs - Aron Baynes (21 points, 8 rebounds) and Marcus Morris (18 points) - who were just that for Boston.
“And you know, whether it be a big rebound by a guard, Baynes scoring as they were coming back, Marcus Morris going in, throwing it to the post and playing out of the post with him some, and then obviously Kyrie made some tremendous plays late. But we had a bunch of guys step up and do different things. We were timely. We weren’t good enough to say we played well; we can play than that.
“Aron was great. Yeah, I mean and they went small a lot, with (Julius) Randle and then they had a lineup there at the very end that was even smaller without all the bigs. And he did a good job rolling all night, and sealing, and finishing in and around the paint. Had a couple of put-backs, and did a good job.”
Baynes insisted that it wasn’t so much about being tougher than anybody but rather knowing how to move and not stay stagnant.
“I think we are just great creators on this team,” Baynes said. “I just found myself in the right position, I was just trying to make the right play and trying to finish as best I could. It’s a compliment to the other guys on the team getting me the ball and great position; Marcus (Smart), Kyrie (Irving) all those guys looking for me and I appreciate it.”
For a guy who scored a game-high 21 points, you wouldn’t think that he’d be that critical of the offense but he was, saying the Celtics “definitely took a step back” Wednesday. But as long as Brad Stevens is in charge, Baynes speaks for the rest of the team when he says they’ll figure out a way to win.
“That’s the best thing about having a good system and a good coach, he puts us in the place we need to be to succeed,” Baynes said. “When we don’t go out there and try and take it upon ourselves, that’s not how we look good. When we got back to moving it that’s when good things happened and that’s when we started to have fun. I keep saying and I keep preaching, but the more you live within the system the better we all look and the more fun we all have as well. That’s a credit to Brad.”
Morris, who came to Boston in the Avery Bradley swap with the Pistons, is loving life playing for Stevens.
“Brad (is) a mastermind when it comes to coaching,” Morris added. “He puts guys in the right spots and strong areas to where they can succeed well at. He knows matchups and plugs guys in, he knows what they do best offensively and defensively.”
So, 10 straight wins, no Hayward, no Horford and a dinged Tatum. Morris looks at that with a sort of amazement - and optimism.
“Sky is the limit. Keep working hard. We got a lot of younger guys that are stepping up to the challenge,” Morris said. “We want Al back as soon as possible and hopefully Jason is doing good. Its early in the season, it’s a long, long year and hopefully we are going to withstand and keep on winning. But things happen in the league and if we do lose we can’t take the losses as the worst thing.”
They won’t. It will only make these battle-tested Celtics tougher.