"Earn the right to score. Earn the right to get stops."
Those words, recently spoken from the spout of Brad Stevens, helped describe his philosophy for growth. It was an appropriate mantra in the earlier stages of this season, but now, with the disassembling of the previously scorching New York Knicks -- Boston's earning the right to much more.
For these Celtics, it's been a season of "earning their rights". Sure, the rights to score and defend came first. But recently and consequently, they've earned the right to win. Specifically, the right to win games without being reminded that they should be losing. The right to beat teams that were supposed to be far better than they, and the right to be a good basketball team. By beating the Knicks, the team who knocked them out of the playoffs last spring, our affirmation took another step in the better direction. Big wins help nullify losses like the one to the Rockets, and they help a team's morale. For fans, it further explains how many of us may have been perfectly wrong about these guys, and that it isn't too late to change our opinions (and hopes).
I liken the Celtics to the making of an ice sculpture in the summer. In a sense, they're improbably being carved out closer to completion. Closer to becoming polished, worthy of our admiration. On the other hand, would anybody be particularly surprised to see it melt to the ground? It's clear that regardless of how surprisingly good this team has been, they won't be competing for a title. They could realistically land themselves with the third seed in the Eastern Conference, but that wouldn't change the truth. The truth that this team is better than expected, yet still not good enough to matter.
But do you care?
A shakedown of the active roster reveals no superstars; no medley of superior talent . What it does reveal, is a team reminiscent of a Brad Stevens-coached team. A group of guys winning by committee, by a balanced attack of whoevers working now and what might work next. Games come and go, and with them, we surrender a slow-growing appreciation for our team and coach.
As Tommy Heinsohn helped explain today, our young players (and old, too) are learning a winning culture. They're learning that beating Miami and New York is something they're entirely capable of. They're holding their own against teams that often play on national TV, a place the Celtics were not long ago. One can see the cohesiveness giving form, the gorilla glue patching together the steez. They've got a cerebral and straight-faced coach who appreciates them, and who is patient with them. He's never publicly humiliated a player for a mistake made; and he's yet to lose his cool. Actually, I don't know if we'll ever see Stevens lose his cool. Boston's coach is a rare find, kind of ethereal. In Stevens, faith was placed. In return, we're gifted with things like 41-point wins and a division lead.
With the growing win column, any one fan's scouting report matters less and less. The guys in the locker and front office know this, and aren't hesitant to remind their opinion. Jared Sullinger told pro-tankers to "kiss our butts", and Jordan Crawford took to Twitter to remind hometown know-it-all Bill Simmons that the Celtics are winning. With their success, the discussion of losing on purpose becomes increasingly irrelevant. Still, the Celtics will likely continue to lend ears to tank talk, even if only to respond to it on the court.
As everyone continues to learn just how good the Celtics can be, it helps to know where they could have been. A place where a discontent Doc Rivers could have continued his strangle-hold on player development; and a place where the aura of Brad Stevens wouldn't exist. Adoring the growth of players who previously suffered through limited roles (Jared Sullinger, Jordan Crawford, even Avery Bradley), we've been able to see their strides in becoming more complete players (Luke Harangody, what could have been?!). Yes, we expected to see these things more with Paul Pierce and Kevin Garnett gone, but we expected to sacrifice winning to do so. Not the case.
Not to ignore, future growing pains will surely still exist, as will losing streaks (thankfully, the East allows for these things). Despite, in a conference and division reminiscent of a nuclear weapons testing facility, the cool, calm, and collectiveness of Stevens and his platoon is settling in.
Being wrong rarely feels this good.