You just knew that Marcus Smart would be in the middle of it.
After being inserted into the starting lineup for the injured Jaylen Brown, the Celtics are 3-0 and (gulp) have an offensive rating of 124.6. Smart is only averaging eight points and five assists during that winning streak, but his influence is noticeable. Boston has played with fire on defense and a joy on offense that wasn’t there earlier in the season.
The recent stretch was punctuated by Gordon Hayward’s breakout game in Minnesota. He was aggressive off the dribble and with his shot, tallying 30 points, 9 rebounds, and 8 assists. It’s been a long, frustrating road for Hayward to regain his All-Star form and after the game, MassLive’s Tom Westerholm revealed that a practice scuffle with Smart might have been the catalyst for Hayward’s breakthrough:
The Celtics were embroiled in one of their toughest practices of the season, and they were poking and prodding at Hayward -- “fouling him and s---” as Marcus Morris put it.
”He just got red at one point,” Morris said. “He was really upset. He was going really hard.”
The catalyst (predictably) was Marcus Smart, according to Morris. The Celtics’ chief instigator got tangled up with Hayward, and Hayward was quietly boiling.
The results were eye-opening. Brad Stevens said the practice let him know Hayward had a big performance was coming. Kyrie Irving said he knew Hayward had “that ticker inside him.” Morris said Hayward started getting out in transition and dunking in ways the Celtics had yet to see since he joined the team.
Marcus Morris added, “Any time Smartie gets tangled up with somebody, it’s good.”
Not to give Smart too much credit, but this is the reason that Danny Ainge and company were always going to re-sign him last summer. He’s the longest standing Celtic not just because of what he brings on the court, but also his leadership and voice in the locker room. He had been the most vocal teammate in the media about Boston’s prior struggles that he often characterized as a lack of toughness and less about the X’s and O’s.
Hayward’s performance on Saturday night followed by his Gatorade shower is hopefully a microcosm of the team’s growing camaraderie and chemistry as noted by The Herald’s Mark Murphy, something that Kyrie Irving has noticed over the last week:
“Someone told me the other day that we all wanted to win individually, but we all wanted to win on our terms. Our own terms. When you have your own individual intent, that can get in the way of the group and what’s best for the group. ... It’s just being part of a profession and figuring it out, and having guys willing to listen and be patient.”
With 59 games to go, the Celtics sit five behind in the loss column to the Toronto Raptors. Many had predicted a wire-to-wire, special season for Boston and a 60-plus win year. They may not reach that number, but after nearly a week of hard fought practices and their first back-to-back sweep of the season, it looks like they’ve finally turned the corner and are heading in the right direction.