Emergency call-up Jabari Bird gives Celtics unexpected spark
PHILADELPHIA — Jabari Bird was back home in California on Tuesday night, biding time before the start of G League training camp with the Maine Red Claws. Signed to one of the league’s new two-way contracts after the Boston Celtics selected him with the 56th pick in the 2017 draft, Bird couldn’t accompany the parent team to its season opener in Cleveland and was watching the game from afar when Gordon Hayward suffered his gruesome ankle injury.
It didn’t take long before Bird’s phone started buzzing. Celtics brass wanted him in Boston on Wednesday morning to provide emergency depth with the team thin on bodies.
“I was already packed. I was ready to go to the G League,” Bird said. “We got training camp coming up and my bags were already packed, I was ready to get out of the house. Then I got the call to go to Boston and I was like, ‘OK, I’m ready too. Just get me a flight.’”
Bird took a red-eye and landed in Boston at 7:30 Wednesday morning. He suited up but did not play during the Celtics’ loss to the Milwaukee Bucks. He figured that’s how it would go again Friday night in Philadelphia but, with coach Brad Stevens searching for some sort of spark, Bird was unexpectedly called upon midway through the third quarter.
The Celtics were down eight when Brown hit the floor, and all he remembers is Stevens telling him to go chase 76ers sharpshooter JJ Redick. Bird played the next 12 minutes, 34 seconds of game action, helping Boston rally ahead and spoil Philadelphia’s home opener with a 102-92 triumph at Wells Fargo Center.
Bird finished with three points over 13:38. He missed his only shot from the field and lamented, “I was surprised I missed. I pride myself on shooting the ball, so I was a little mad.” He got fouled on a 3-point attempt a short time later and scored his first NBA points with a pair of free throws.
Asked what Boston coaches did to make sure he was ready for this moment, Bird was refreshingly honest.
“Nothing. I wasn’t prepared at all for tonight,” he said to laughter after Friday’s game. “Mentally, I had to just lock into the game. Coach [Stevens] just looked at me and said, ‘Bird get Jaylen [Brown].’ All right. OK. That’s what I did.”
Bird admitted he was so surprised to get into the game that he doesn’t even remember what assistant coach Micah Shrewsberry told him as he stood at the scorer’s table waiting to check in. What he does remember is embracing the challenge of shadowing Redick.
“So all the way through preseason and training camp, I felt like [Bird] was one of our better perimeter defenders,” Stevens said. “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. Just really good. He’s not afraid and you knew he would step up.”
Bird knows Stevens could have just as easily gone with one of the other four rookies available for Boston on Friday. But in a ugly, whistle-filled game, Stevens was throwing darts a bit and hit a bull’s-eye by leaning on both Bird and offseason signee Shane Larkin, who scored eight of his 10 points in the fourth quarter.
The challenge for Bird is showing he can consistently affect games if called upon again. His veteran teammates think there’s a good chance he’ll stick around, particularly if Marcus Smart needs more time to work his way back from the ankle injury that kept him out of Friday’s game.
The Celtics were missing three of their top six players on Friday in Hayward (ankle), Smart (ankle) and Marcus Morris (knee). Boston started one rookie in Jayson Tatum and had five more available on the bench in Bird, Daniel Theis, Guerschon Yabusele, Semi Ojeleye and Abdel Nader.
“Jabari is probably gonna be on every trip with us now and guys are gonna be called up and called upon to be ready to play,” Kyrie Irving said. “We have to have that expectation that, when we come in the game, we’re all ready to play and we trust one another and we have each other’s backs.”