WALTHAM, Mass. – Trailing Philadelphia by eight points midway trough the third quarter Friday night, the Celtics needed a defensive spark to help start a rally at Wells Fargo Center. So, Brad Stevens calmly walked toward Boston’s bench and called on a player who had never seen a minute of NBA action in his life.
Jabari Bird was shocked when Stevens uttered his name. Just four nights prior, he had been watching the Celtics’ season opener against the Cavs from his couch at his home in Northern California. Now, the 56th overall pick of the 2017 Draft was being asked to go out and help get his new team back on track by shutting down an elite shooter in J.J. Redick.
While he was stunned, the 23-year-old wing had no time to be nervous. He simply stepped on the floor, locked in, and performed the task that he was assigned.
The Celtics were behind 61-53 at the 6:07 mark of the third quarter when Bird checked in for Jaylen Brown. He ended up being so effective that Stevens did not take him out until the 5:33 mark of the fourth quarter. By then, the Celtics had already stormed back to claim an 88-84 lead, which they ultimately held onto for a 102-92 win.
While Bird didn’t make much of an impact on the offensive end, attempting just one shot and finishing with three points, his presence was of utmost importance on the defensive side of the ball.
Redick had been torching the C’s all night long and had piled up 17 first-half points. But with Bird draped all over him for the majority of the second half, the sharpshooter was limited to just two points for the remainder of the game.
Heading in, Bird knew that Redick was one of the best off-ball players in the league. And he knew exactly how to slow him down.
“He really knows how to get leverage by pushing off to create that first step to get to where he wants to get on the court,” Bird said of Redick Saturday afternoon following practice at the Celtics’ training facility. “I just tried to stay lower than him, make sure he didn’t get me off balance. My thing was not to take away shots, but to just be there, have a hand up, and be in his air space.”
Bird’s impact did not surprise Stevens in the least. In fact, the coach had gushed about the wing’s defensive potential a number of times ahead of the regular season.
“All the way through preseason and training camp, I felt like he was one of our better perimeter defenders,” Stevens reiterated after Friday’s game. “I think he’s got a huge upside. His rebounding spoke for itself in the preseason practices and his ability to guard on the ball, especially shooters cutting off screens, is just really good. He’s not afraid, and you knew he would step up.”
Bird signed a two-way contract with Boston over the summer, meaning he is allowed to spend a finite period of time on the Celtics roster, while spending the rest of his time playing for their G-League affiliate Maine Red Claws.
Bird knew he would at some point get a chance to play for Boston, but he did not expect to get called up so soon. Boston’s brass phoned him up Tuesday night after Gordon Hayward sustained a potentially season-ending leg injury, and he was overwhelmed with a rush of emotions.
“I was shocked,” Bird recalled. “I was so concerned because I felt kind of bad for Gordon with his situation that I wasn’t even really thinking about myself, that I’m going to have a chance to play for the Celtics now. I was just hoping that he was OK with everything. But when I got the call, I quickly told my dad that I had to go to Boston.”
Bird boarded a red-eye flight from the Bay Area that night, and joined the team the next day for its home opener against Milwaukee.
Even being on Boston’s bench, Bird wasn’t sure if he would be given a chance to play during the last two games. But Stevens had faith in him in Philly, and it paid off.
While some of Bird’s teammates were taken aback by his contributions, Brown wasn’t surprised at all. He had played with Bird for one season at Cal-Berkeley and was fully aware of what he could bring to the table.
“He’s more ready than anybody, in my opinion,” said Brown. “He can guard at a high level. He can play, and he will outplay a lot of people.
“Jabari’s going to work,” the 20-year-old wing added. “He’s going to try to get better; he has that mindset that he wants to get better. He’s hungry and he wants to prove he belongs. Now he’s building his resume with the minutes he’s logging. An opportunity opened up because of injuries, and I think he’s going to take advantage of it.”
Considering that the Celtics are dealing with injuries to three of their veteran players – Hayward (ankle/tibia), Marcus Smart (ankles) and Marcus Morris (knee) – they will need Bird and the rest of their youngsters to be ready to step in and contribute.
“Every one of them should think, ‘There’s a good chance that I get an opportunity to impact the game on Tuesday night (against New York),’” said Stevens. “There’s not a guy on this roster that shouldn’t think that right now. It may or may not be their night, but ultimately we’re in a situation where we need everybody. We need everybody to be at their best and prepare to be at their best.”
Bird may have been taken aback at being thrown into the fire Friday night, but now he knows what to expect. He’s eager and ready for the next time Stevens calls his name, and he’ll be looking to make another game-changing impact when that happens.