Have the Celtics Finally Found Their Happy Place?

Forsberg: Have the Celtics finally found their joy? originally appeared on NBC Sports Boston

When newcomer Luke Kornet’s second fourth-quarter 3-pointer dropped in Oklahoma City on Saturday night, a sea of green spilled onto the floor.

Tacko Fall was already clambering over the first row of bench chairs while the shot was still in the air, and a load-managed Kemba Walker grabbed onto Carsen Edwards’ shoulders and pranced around the floor in childlike excitement after it splashed.

The green stampede, including a couple of particularly hyped behind-the-bench assistant coaches, came at Kornet so emphatically that he didn’t even see Marcus Smart approaching for an initial high five.

Tatum, Brown carry C's over Thunder with huge second half

Players kept gleefully pounding on Kornet even after he settled into a chair on the bench trying his best to act like what happened wasn’t a big deal.

But it was. And probably more than Kornet could know.

In a season thin on these sort of moments of sheer joy, the Celtics' unbridled excitement watching a new guy propel a big fourth-quarter run for a gut-check win at the end of a brutal stretch of games was most certainly a big deal. After the game, as Kornet prepared to do a walkoff interview, Fall raced over from behind and dumped water on his head in celebration.

The night before in Milwaukee, a jubilant Walker had hopped onto the back of Robert Williams while Time Lord, fresh off a dazzling first start of the season, was conducting his own postgame media chores.

In most seasons, these moments might blend into the scenery. But just a week ago, Smart had lamented how these Celtics were, "not having fun."

Winning, of course, has a way of injecting fun. The Celtics produced their best victory of the season Friday night in Milwaukee then found a way to eke out a win on the second night of a back-to-back in OKC, even if the opponent looked more like a G-League squad.

The Celtics open up a season-long seven-game homestand Monday night while welcoming fans back at TD Garden for the first time in more than a year. Fourteen of Boston’s next 19 games are at home. There is a real chance for this team to finally build momentum, pry itself out of play-in position, and maybe even make a run at the fourth seed in the Eastern Conference.

Boston’s chances at a surge get better if newcomer Evan Fournier is able to make his debut in green. The team listed him as questionable for Monday’s game due to health and safety protocols. Celtics coach Brad Stevens was tight-lipped when Fournier missed Saturday’s game after landing in protocol after trekking to Boston for his post-trade physical.

The Celtics have been hit harder by COVID than any team in the NBA. According to data tracking by Fansure, the Celtics have lost an estimated 106 player days with 11 total Celtics players missing time in protocol. Those numbers continue to grow as Romeo Langford has been sidelined since the All-Star break and Tristan Thompson has been out since March 15. Both were listed as out again for Monday’s game.

Long season for C's
Celtics' player days missed due to COVID protocols (most in NBA)
Pelicans' player days missed due to COVID protocols

While Boston is far from the only team in the NBA that’s battled COVID issues, it’s jarring to see a team like the Pelicans, who visit on Monday night, have lost only six total player days due to health and safety. That’s the second fewest in the league behind only Indiana, based on Fansure’s data through March 23.

Stevens has often noted that Boston has become so familiar with missing players due to health and safety protocols that they just sort of bank on being shorthanded each night. On the more encouraging side, Grant Williams posted a snapshot of his vaccination card on Instagram after appearing to get his first COVID shot Sunday in Boston.

Until the Celtics’ COVID woes subside, the team has to find a way to bottle up the joy that was prevalent the past two games. Boston more consistently played with the right energy on both ends of the floor. Time will tell if the trade deadline shakeup alone was enough to jolt this team from its doldrums.

Celtics president of basketball operations Danny Ainge said Friday he had sensed internal discouragement among his players and coaches given the team’s struggles this season. He suggested that part of the reason for making the trade for Fournier was to shake things up a bit because the team wasn’t playing with the right spirit consistently enough.

Celtics Talk Podcast: How internal discouragement led to the Celtics acquiring Evan Fournier | Listen & subscribe | Watch on YouTube

The last two games have been an encouraging step in the right direction. There’s a real chance for Boston to make some hay during this home-heavy stretch. But only if they continue to play the right way. And only if they can continue to find joy on the court.

"We feel good. We don't feel great,” Smart said after Saturday’s win in OKC. "We don't feel like -- we're not complacent. We're not done. We're not satisfied. This is just the start for us.

"We've got to continue to keep rolling. For us, the big thing is not trying to go backwards: taking a step forward and two steps backward. It's a great win, these two, way to finish off the road trip. Now it's time to go home. We have our fans coming in and it's time to guard that place up and play Celtics basketball and make this run."

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