One by one they came to pay their respects. A receiving line at the church of Winning Plays.
It started with shoulder slaps and butt taps for reverend Marcus Smart. Then Grant Williams aggressively tussled Smart’s mop of green hair. Jaylen Brown capped the stream of well-wishers by taking an impromptu piggyback ride.
Smart, the hero of Monday night’s gritty, come-from-behind victory over the Oklahoma City Thunder, beamed the whole time and somehow maintained his focus during a postgame interview.
"Last year around this time, we would have lost this game," admitted Smart. "The thing about self-improvement is understanding and acknowledging."
There’s a clear maturation that has happened with these Boston Celtics and their star players since last year’s NBA Finals run. The Celtics got outhustled and outplayed for the majority of three quarters by a Thunder team playing on the second night of a back-to-back. But Smart wouldn’t let Boston’s momentum be short-circuited.
After Payton Pritchard and Derrick White changed the energy of the game in the third quarter, Smart carried the Celtics to the finish line. The result: seven straight wins, the best record in the NBA, and a team absolutely gushing positive vibes.
"It feels amazing," said Smart. "We had a lot of stuff going on early in the season with us. A lot of controversy, a lot of expectations for us, a lot of obstacles to overcome. And we just continue to keep fighting, trusting one another, and keep going."
Winning cures all. It’s the best protection against distractions.
Celtics Talk POSTGAME POD: Celtics ride 4th quarter comeback vs. OKC to seventh straight win | Listen & Subscribe
It helps, too, when your team has the best offense in the NBA (by 3 points per game, no less) and can crank up its sputtering defensive intensity enough to steal a win. You don’t often see TD Garden rock on a sleepy November Monday, but the Celtics injected playoff-caliber intensity into the gym in the second half.
These Celtics are just different. They have a clear goal in mind after coming up short in the Finals last season and they're hellbent on taking the final step. And they can have some fun along the way.
Jayson Tatum has evolved into a legitimate MVP candidate and some online gambling sites shuffled him to the top odds for the award on Tuesday. Smart had a bumpy start to the season but has been downright spectacular on this winning streak. Pritchard could have sulked after piling up DNPs out of the gate but instead was ready and fully engaged when Joe Mazzulla called his number early in the third quarter looking for a Dunkin’ style turbo shot.
Pritchard has had veteran Blake Griffin in his ear throughout the season. Huddled with reporters after Monday’s game, and with Griffin watching from his locker stall nearby, Pritchard was asked about his connection with Griffin.
"I actually hate the guy," deadpanned Pritchard.
Yep, the vibes are immaculate with this team. What could have been a gut-punch loss on Monday turned into a feel-good win that sends the Celtics back on the road with a whole bunch of momentum.
"That’s kind of what we talked about after the game: It wasn't pretty, and OKC might not have the best record, but that's a talented offensive team," said Tatum. "They play with a lot of pace, guys know their role so, on a given night, they can beat anybody. And I think it was just good for us to face some adversity and figure it out.
"Everybody contributed. D-White and Payton off the bench giving that spark at the end of the third, beginning of fourth, that really willed us to that comeback. So I was extremely proud of the way that we responded, the way that we competed, and figured it out.
"It wasn't pretty. Obviously, some things we wish we could have done better, but that's a talented team, and that's a good win."