BOSTON – Aron Baynes stood in the Hall of Fame room at the former Celtics practice facility in Waltham broken, but undeterred. The burly Australian revealed to the media the morning after the Game 7 loss to the Cleveland Cavaliers in the Eastern Conference finals last May that he had suffered a fractured nose one game earlier, but insisted he felt as good as he had following any season in his career, and was determined that the previous day’s disappointment could serve to “galvanize” the team for a title push the next season.
Baynes left no doubt that day that he wanted to return this season and finish the job with a healthy roster and added year of experience out of the team’s youth. In the opening minutes of free agency just over a month later, he put his signature where his words were and re-signed with Boston.
“Staying where I wanted to be,” he posted on Twitter that night. “Last year added fuel to the (fire). Bleed Green. Banner 18.”
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Nearly a year later, Baynes acknowledged that fire didn’t exactly burn evenly for the Celtics this season. A team pegged to pace the Eastern Conference, and challenge the Golden State Warriors for an NBA championship, had fits and starts, feuds and spats, and looked anything but galvanized as it went 49-33 in the regular season on the way to a fourth seed in the East.
But on the eve of Sunday’s Game 1 against the Indiana Pacers, Baynes was once again undeterred. Though all of this year’s frustration and drama, he was able to draw upon the bouts of magic the Celtics dabbled in during last spring’s unpredictable playoff tour, and pronounced that this year’s squad is capable of the same captivating success.
“We all had a taste of it,” he determined. “We know what to expect. So last year is going to benefit us immensely at this time. It’s going to be fun to get out there. It’s going to be a dogfight. But that’s what it’s about.”
Both Marcus Morris and Terry Rozier have admitted that it was anything but fun and full of togetherness in the regular season at times this season, but the Celtics know that can all be erased starting Sunday. They are well aware of the voltage level that will be in the building, and the talent that sits within a roster that on paper still matches up against any team in the East.
The Celtics know that it’s not exactly a fresh start beginning today. But it is a chance to reshape the history of this season from one of regret to one of redemption.
“Not everything went according to plan this year,” Celtics coach Brad Stevens acknowledged. “But we’re going to make the most of the opportunity we have.”
While Marcus Smart’s oblique injury provided a distressing start to the final playoff countdown, the Celtics talked this week like a bunch that has regrouped and is ready to go. Seemingly, the petty issues that plagued them throughout the past six months have been set aside in favor of what the players all know they are capable of over the next two if they stay together, embrace roles, and execute as a unit.
“Our key, as every game when we step out on the court, is following Brad’s system,” Baynes said. “If we stick within Brad’s system, that’s when we look good. That’s when we play well.”
And many of these players expect to play their best starting Sunday. Kyrie Irving talked this week about putting “a lot of bullshit” from the regular season behind him, and focusing on the “true essence of basketball” that exists in the playoffs. Gordon Hayward talked about waiting almost two years since coming to Boston to be a part of that parquet postseason frenzy. Rozier talked about looking to seize the extra chance that may be afforded him to thrive this spring the way he so often did a year ago.
Jaylen Brown got to sounding like Playoff Jaylen Brown again as he brought back some of the swagger that has gone hidden much of his third season in the NBA.
“I’m feeling hungry,” he declared on Saturday. “Two times I’ve been left short. I’ve got a void to fill.”
It has yet to be the season Celtics players, coaches and fans had hoped for back in the initial happy days of training camp. It might not have been the season Baynes signed up for when he committed back to Boston last July.
Yet, it was Stevens who said following the distressing loss to the San Antonio Spurs three weeks ago that this team still has a chance to write its own ending to this story.
The stage is now set for the final chapters in that quest for salvation.
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