When you’re in a funk, sometimes the best thing to do is go for a walk. Step away from the problem and come back to it with a fresh mind. The Celtics have lost five of their last six games since the All-Star Game and looked all out of sorts even before the break, but the scheduling gods have gifted them a four-game trip out west.
The timing couldn’t be more perfect and it seems like some of the necessary bloodletting has already happened. This morning, ESPN’s Jackie MacMullan dropped an insightful look into Gordon Hayward’s comeback and the frustrations that have painfully come with it. It’s entailed watching video from his pre-injury days in Utah when he wasn’t as hesitant, enlisting a mental health counselor to guide him through the predictable and not so predictable ups and downs of his recovery, and adjusting to his evolving role on this team.
The greatest insight may have come from teammate Marcus Smart:
“We never felt, ‘This isn’t going to work -- get him out of here,’” teammate Marcus Smart explained. “It was more, ‘We’re rushing him.’ Everyone wanted to throw Gordon back out there, but his body wasn’t ready to do what we were asking him to do.”
Smart said the players understand the quandary: They need a healthy and confident Hayward to win the East, but force-feeding him minutes was impeding the team’s day-to-day success.
”It’s complicated,” Smart conceded. “You can’t stop playing him, but at the same time, you don’t want to lose the other guys who are playing well. Guys need to earn their minutes.
”Gordon understands that. We want Gordon to be Gordon. We need that confident guy.”
Of course, Hayward’s return is just a small piece of what’s been ailing the Celtics. There’s also the issue of last year’s young studs that went to Game 7 of the Eastern Conference Finals taking proverbial back seats to the returning vets, including Jaylen Brown. The Globe’s Gary Washburn caught up with the third-year wing to take the pulse of one of the most promising players in the league. The word that’s getting a lot of traction today is “toxic,” but here’s the full context:
“To be honest, I’m not feeling good at all,” Brown said. “The losing, it’s not a good feeling. I’m not too good about that.
“Because right now it’s not good. It’s toxic. I can’t really point out one thing. I don’t have all the answers. I’m just going to try to be part of the change. I’m going to try to do my best. That’s all I’ve got to say.”
Brown continued, “I still believe. I think we’ve got time to get it together. I’m very optimistic and very positive and think that we will . . . We keep talking about it. I’m just going to try to do it with my play, come out and play hard and try to change the atmosphere and this environment.” That enthusiasm for change was shared this afternoon by Smart and Stevens in their shootaround pressers.
Smart recognized the issues in the locker room but seemed hopeful that the road trip would be a great opportunity for the team to bond, saying, “focus on ourselves. Sticking together. We really can’t worry too much about other teams.”
He continued, “as a competitor, you want to live up to the goals you set for yourself. We’ve been pressing a lot because we’ve been trying to please everybody instead of just going out there and playing the game and really focusing on ourselves and winning the game.”
Those concerns aren’t lost on head coach Brad Stevens either.
“I don’t think that this team had any chance of going where they ultimately wanted to go without facing some adversity,” Stevens said. “We have not necessarily found ourselves by any means, but I do think that if we do, we’ll count that as a good part of the path, though not a very fun one to go through, that’s for sure.”
Stevens talked about his relationship with Kyrie and dealing with expectations. He mentioned reaching out to him after the loss to the Rockets and reiterated that the season isn’t over and that they can still reach their goals.
“I still think these are the times that test you and stretch you the most, not only as a team but also individually to give of yourself to the team. Like I said yesterday, we have not done that at the level we need to all year. You could see it in the preseason. Hopefully, these things remind us how bad we need each other.”
“The reality is, Kyrie was an All-Star, but our strength is in our depth. Kyrie can do things that other guys can’t do. Those guys all bring certain strengths to the table, but if we’re not playing well, all nine of us, we’re not as good as we had hoped to be. That’s where we all have to be. We all have to be playing well and we hope to get there.”
Tonight’s game against the defending champs couldn’t have come at a better time. It’s not just a measuring stick heading towards the playoffs, but it forces the Celtics to be at their best.
This is a great test tonight, to see if we can get back and play a good 48 minutes, possession by possession, do it in a real mature way,” Stevens said. “The beautiful part about having to play Golden State is that they are going to go on runs and you are going to have to respond or you are going to get buried. That’s a good thing for us to have to go through.”