OKLAHOMA CITY — The energy was palpably different immediately.
On the first play of the second half, the Celtics ran through their action — an inside-out set that collapsed the defense onto Jayson Tatum under the hoop — and found Gordon Hayward open in the corner, who let fly the team’s 12th 3-point attempt of the game.
The previous 11 had all been unsuccessful, as the Celtics spotted the Oklahoma City Thunder a 16-point lead. But as Hayward rose and fired, the entire Celtics bench was on its feet. Jaylen Brown turned and ran back on defense before the ball reached the rim. Tatum raised one hand with three fingers extended over his head.
The shot splashed through. One play later, Tatum isolated against Steven Adams and blew by the big man, finishing with a massive one-handed dunk at the rim. The Celtics bench celebrated wildly.
For the first time in a while, the Celtics looked like they were having fun.
“I don’t think it’s about offense or defense,” Brad Stevens said, after Boston’s 101-95 victory. “I think it’s about enjoying playing together, so that’s what we take from it. … I don’t think it’s pressing. You saw it on our offense. When we started missing shots, we stopped moving the ball and we stopped trusting if the next should would fall. You just have to do that. It’s easier said than done with guys that haven’t played much together and as far as integrating our new guys we think we finally looked like ourselves.”
That might be the missing part of the equation — the ??? to Boston’s “profit.” Boston’s offense has created decent looks in two consecutive games. At times, the defense has been a stifling blanket, suffocating opponents into submission. Good offense + good defense + ??? = Profit.
??? = fun.
“Honestly, guys were frustrated,” Tatum said. “We weren’t hitting shots, and Brad came in the locker room and told us we were getting good shots, we were playing good D for the most part. We were just too tense. Nobody was smiling, nobody was having any fun. That was the difference in the second half.”
As they develop, this Celtics team could be a lot of fun. Kyrie Irving is a magician — perhaps the most intuitive ball-handler and finisher the NBA has ever seen. Tatum is only 20 and undeniably spectacular, a burgeoning superstar who could drop the “burgeoning” qualifier as the season goes on. Gordon Hayward can do a little bit of everything. Jaylen Brown has struggled (Stevens said Brown just needs to defend, and he expects the third-year wing will be fine), but he’s a spring-loaded dynamo. Al Horford and Marcus Smart are appreciated by NBA fans who love the details.
There’s so much fun basketball embedded in this team, the recent joyless play has been jarring. Nobody looked selfish, really. In fact, the opposite has been true: Players who are often at their best when they are looking for their own bucket have been trying to get everyone involved instead of simply doing the things that come naturally.
“It’s a hard thing to hold onto of being a certain way for a certain amount of time in your career and then when you come into a situation like this where you’re playing with a lot of good players sometimes you can dim down how special you are or overthink how you’re supposed to be playing,” Irving said. “… When you’re not on the same page it can look very, very bad. So I think that we would want to err on the side of being one and being together and playing well together. It’s just a lot better basketball that way.”
“It’s basketball at the end of the day,” Tatum added. “We get paid a lot of money to do what we love, and just get back to having fun.”
That will be the Celtics’ challenge going forward. A team that desperately wants to be in sync needs to stop forcing the issue and simply play to everyone’s strengths, even if those strengths can seem selfish.
“I think guys are just trying to make it work,” Marcus Morris said. “… We still have to be who we are. We still have to play our games individually.”
Put most simply, the Celtics need to have fun. If they can stitch together all of the individual talent, the result could look less like the first-half team that tumbled into a double-digit deficit and a lot more like the second-half team that sent Oklahoma City reeling backward into Morris’ knock-out punch.
“We all have great relationships outside of this,” Irving said. “But I think that, coming off the summertime, having a short preseason, starting off the season of being ‘that team’ sorta speaks — it could hit your ego a little bit. When you come to the realization that it’s not going to be exactly what you thought it was going to be coming into the season, it’s not last year, it’s totally different team and we kept the same players but it’s totally different dynamic. Guys have gotten better, some guys are filling better roles and different areas, timing of the game, and literally this is a challenge for all of us to just really be supportive. No matter what, we have to stay the course. That is something that’s scary to think about as professionals, that we still have to be better as individuals and better as a team but it makes this year, going through it, a lot more special to see the growth that we can have, us getting better every single day as a team.”