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These Celtics are so damn fun after such a crushing start

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After Gordon Hayward’s horrifying injury in the first game, this team has given fans a reason to hope.

Boston Celtics v Philadelphia 76ers Photo by Mitchell Leff/Getty Images

On Monday night I found myself pacing back and forth in my apartment as I plowed through a box of not-that-good almond-flour crackers I’d fished out from the back of my cabinet. I was watching the Celtics play the Hawks, and seeing as I usually only stress-eat during close playoffs, I was approximately 70 games and five months ahead of my Sports Nerves schedule. The Game Anxiety usually only kicks in when there’s a title at stake.

This match-up wasn’t particularly important, but there was something more than just the 11th game of Boston’s season on the line.

For one, the Celtics were on a eight-game winning streak, and the Hawks were keeping them on their toes as they traded off the lead deep into the fourth quarter. There was also electricity, excitement, charm. Kyrie Irving was performing magic tricks on the court, dribbling between his legs, casually tossing rockets with one hand. Jayson Tatum was sinking threes. Jaylen Brown was rebounding.

It was so enjoyable to watch these guys jam. They were turning basketball into the graceful dance it becomes when players are so in step with each other that it looks like they’re moving to music only they can hear.

What I’m trying to say is: There was hope.

NBA: Boston Celtics-Press Conference Bob DeChiara-USA TODAY Sports

I didn’t feel any of this hope on the NBA season’s opening night when I received a terrible text message from one of my editors. In fact, I felt the opposite of hope (is that dread? Defeat? Doom? Gloom?) as I read the blue bubble on my phone. “Don’t watch the Hayward footage.”

I was on my way back to the bar of my hotel after reporting a story all day. I’d been eager to settle onto one of the leather stools that was slightly cracked from the rotation of transient butts and watch the Celtics play the Cavaliers.

My hometown team’s season was thrilling to think about. I’d loved watching Gordon Hayward, Kyrie, and Tatum when they were in different cities or still in college. After enduring heartbreak when Danny Ainge traded the beloved Isaiah Thomas to Cleveland for Kyrie (even though I was excited to have my favorite flat-earth truther join the squad), I could hardly believe I’d get to see this group of guys play together, all wearing green.

Except that I wouldn’t. As soon as I read that text, I knew something awful had happened. But it was far worse than I imagined; as we all know now, Hayward fractured his tibia in perhaps the most gruesome way possible. (Or so I hear: I took my editor’s advice and still haven’t watched the footage). In mere seconds, the Celtics went from being a promising whole to missing their offseason prize of Hayward, a guy Thomas helped recruit before he was ripped out of Boston.

I watched the rest of the totally shaken team hold their own and lose in a nail-biter as I ate my sad Ceasar salad. They kept the score close, but there was a cloud of horror hanging over the court for all four quarters. Boston then lost, predictably, the next night to the Bucks.

But then Kyrie put up 21 points and Al Horford had nine rebounds to beat the Sixers. In the next game, Brown scored 23 points and Kyrie had seven assists to beat the Knicks. The Celtics went on to wipe the Bucks’ special home floor with the Bucks themselves, then snag another W against the Heat. After that, they preceded to take down the Spurs, Kings, Thunder, and Magic.

In Hayward’s absence, team leaders have changed from game to game — it hasn’t always been Kyrie who scores the most points (though he often does) or gets the most assists. The top spots rotate between him, Brown, Horford, Marcus Smart. Terry Rozier, Aron Baynes, and Daniel Theis have all been doing work. Tatum has been impressive, already drawing comparisons to Paul Pierce on local broadcasts (take that with a grain of salt: It’s early, and Boston media has been known to, shall we say, get ahead of itself). A group of guys who haven’t played together much, including a very talented rookie, are finding a rhythm.

The point is that these guys are not only cookin’, they’re cookin’ with gas. Gas that seemed to be in short supply on that dark night in Cleveland a month ago.

And as I ate far too many weird, barbecue flavored crackers on Monday, I realized that the reason I was so invested, the reason an early season game against the Hawks had me wearing down my floorboards, was because I had let myself hope. And then the Celtics won, and my hope once again wasn’t dashed.

Do you know how fun that is? It’s so fun! It’s beyond fun! It’s the definition of fun! I found myself thinking in all-caps, “THESE GUYS COULD WIN IT ALL!!!”

NBA: Boston Celtics at Oklahoma City Thunder Mark D. Smith-USA TODAY Sports

Optimism is a lovely thing. It’s also in short supply these days. I’m not used to having something outside of my control in the big wide world actually go the way I want it to when things seem bad. Even if it’s in the form of a sports team, I’m enjoying drinking from a glass that recently seemed less than half empty (shattered, even), only to find that it actually might be more than half full.

Who knows what will happen in the future. Players are humans, and humans, as Hayward’s injury so cruelly illustrated, are breakable. We learned before the Wednesday night game against the Lakers, for example, that Horford won’t play because he’s entered concussion protocol. Even if everyone stays healthy, there are some who think the Celts are outperforming. That this run is all a blip.

It could be. Momentum can come to a screeching halt in sports and in life as quickly as it builds. You can break your leg in the first six minutes of a game. Your pets’ heads can fall off.

But you know what? You can also watch your favorite team put on a beautiful show and win nine in a row. You can pray that this is a sign of what’s to come for the rest of the season. Sometimes it pans out, sometimes it doesn’t.

No matter what, feeling truly hopeful after you thought you’d entered a hopeless vacuum — even if it’s short-lived — is such a damn delight.

The whole sports community rallied in support of Gordon Hayward