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Why We Fight

gomes1.jpgDespite the mounting losses that this team has endured over the past few weeks, there has been an endearing spirit of resiliency and “fight” that has been a consistent and comforting presence throughout.

Nobody wants to see the team struggle in the standings, but it’s hard to place much fault on the roster as currently constituted. The main playing rotation is more than merely short on playing experience. The group that has taken the floor recently has logged precious few minutes with each other.

On-court chemistry involves more than just occupying a spot on the roster with each other. Many of the pains the team is going through revolve around a lack of familiarity with each other’s respective game nuances, something that veteran teams like San Antonio have in spades. Ryan Gomes explains:

“When you’ve been with a team that’s been together for three, four, five years, you know every move [of your teammates]. Tim Duncan knows that when he gets it at the elbow, he can give Parker a wink and he’ll know what’s going to happen. When you have that, you trust everything that you do [as a team]. We’re at the level where we’re trying to get there. We are a less experienced team than they are. They play off of reads; they don’t just play off of one-on-one.”

But that familiarity is growing by the play. Even though the bottom line of winning games isn’t being fulfilled the players are battling tooth and nail to the best of their ability. Mistakes have become less frequent and their level of competitiveness has increased dramatically, as evidence by their efficiency and production spike since the Memphis game two weeks ago.

With so many players displaying individual growth in their games it’s hard to argue against the value that the injury to Pierce has provided when thinking about long-term/short-term gain. Players are taking encouragement from their own improvement with an eye toward the return of their captain.

“The biggest thing is competing. We don’t have to be the most talented guys in the league to compete, that’s what we’ve done. But we’ve got to do it for 48 minutes. You can see the anticipation of Paul and Wally’s return. The key is that guys still have to stay aggressive and keep playing the way they’re playing. If we do that then when those guys come back we’re going to be a heck of a team man,” West stipulated after the highly contested game against the Spurs.

Dispelling the “culture of losing” fallacy

One of the principle arguments that has made its way through the message boards is the notion that the volume of losses that this team has endured will develop a culture of losing, or an acceptance of failure as it where.

Those who warn of the dangers that building through the draft may bring continually mention teams such as the Hawks and Clippers. However, there are some distinct differences between those teams and the current Celtics.

The Celtics have uniform communication from the ownership level all the way through the coaching staff. The team has an organizational direction that is supported from the highest levels of the team and is openly discussed and understood by all principle decision makers. Teams such as the Hawks, or until recently the Clippers, have had no such direction or communication. It can be legitimately argued as to whether or not the Celtics have an effective direction, but they’ve chosen to build around Pierce by developing youth and playing the market if and when they see value.

Teams with losing cultures never commit to any direction. They continually draft players, but they are also continually letting other young drafted players go to other teams as their new youth arrive. The Clippers were a turnstile franchise for decades before Donald Sterling began worrying about his legacy in Los Angeles.

With no direction from the top, players stop believing in ability of their franchise to find success. Players don’t get the solid leadership and consistent message they need to continue to fight through the down times. As those down times continue these players start playing for their next contracts or the next plane out of town. That’s what breeds a culture of losing, something that is not currently a part of the fabric of this team.

Rajon Rondo put it into perspective in a way that transcends his age and experience as a rookie trying to establish himself in the league.

“You kind of do think about [progress] individually, but its still a team sport. We’re trying to get wins on the floor. It hurts to have a couple of the losses that we’ve been having, those 3 and 4 point losses. We’ve got to stay positive and stay together. We don’t want to handle adversity, we want to overcome. Just stay together; if the fans stay with us, then we’ll be all right.”

Rivers’ role in keeping spirits high

doc1.jpgThe fact that these players have been able to maintain their focus and desire is no small matter. The mental drain of losing games is a tough task to endure, especially when so often it comes from the subtle mistakes that they make.

The dichotomy between the mental errors that keep this team constantly behind and the zeal with which they storm back only adds to their psychological exhaustion. As frustrating as it is for fans to go through the ups and downs of this season, imagine how taxing it is to those who are actually performing on a nightly basis.

The players want to win as badly as the fans that follow them, more so. What truly separates this team from many in the NBA is that this young band of brothers actually feels the sting of defeat internally. The effort they display on-court should be enough to recognize this.

But behind the scenes, when the cameras go off and the channel changes these players are still staring off beyond the microphones pushed in their faces, still going over every mistake and every missed opportunity in their minds. They constantly review what separated them from a win on any given night.

Doc Rivers is the man responsible for keeping these players searching for the good in every loss. He is the one who helps these young players put the past game behind them and look objectively at what’s to be done to find success the next night.

“Focusing on the small things. Keep improving. If you keep working then it will turn your way and things will happen for you. I tell our guys every night they’ve got to show up and be ready to play. You’ve got to have great focus and you’ve got to do all the little things. If we cut down on those little things, those little mistakes, then we will win games,” said Rivers.

Rivers has been the object of ire for most who follow this team. Pierce has bore this brunt at times, but it inevitable and overwhelmingly rests at the feet of Rivers for most.

Rivers is most often cited for his lack of establishing a rotation and his inability to substitute and situation-manage single possession games down the stretch. The problem with this line of reasoning is that he hasn’t had a team that could be easily managed in this manner until recently. Before injuries fully hit the club, Rivers could reasonably expect consistent performance from very few of his players.

Beyond Pierce and Szczerbiak, none of the other Celtics could be penciled in to produce on a nightly basis. This made substitution patterns and set rotations extremely difficult. The roster was a grab-bag-o-fun each and every night, with a couple of decent performances making a merry-go-round through the various talented youngsters getting playing time.

But, before Pierce and Szczerbiak went down, the output of Al Jefferson, Ryan Gomes, and Tony Allen had really begun to stabilize and this was starting to allow Rivers to commit to specific roles and rotations with much more consistent rhyme and reason.

The point guard position was most in flux up until recently, but with good reason. Sebastian Telfair had rightfully earned the starting position early on, while Delonte West’s injuries and Rajon Rondo’s inconsistency kept them jockeying for backup minutes.

When Telfair began to fall off this gave West the chance to jump back into the starting role. “It’s starting to click for me,” said West. “ I’m really dissecting coach Rivers’ offense, really starting to understand what it takes to be a good point guard in this league.”

Another injury to West allowed Rondo to get his second crack at major minutes, and this time he was ready to run with it. “ I watch a lot of film, see where I can get better, especially defensively and offensively knowing when I can attack and when I should try and knock down a shot…all aspects of the game,” Rondo explained.

Its easy to view the team from the outside and make judgments on which players have the most talent and who deserves the minutes in a theoretical rotation. But to keep order and maintain a full commitment from all the players, Rivers has had to establish uniform guidelines for earning playing time and has had to detail specific objectives for each player to strive toward, benchmarks that merit minutes.

When Rivers said a few weeks ago that he couldn’t just “give” minutes to a player performing below another just for the sake of development, he was describing the fine line between balancing the potential of one player against the collective interests of the team.

Gerald Green is currently in this situation right now. Green is more talented than Allen Ray, but Ray has played better than Green over the past week. Message board pundits have been up in arms about what’s best for Green and his confidence, but Green isn’t the only player on this team.

“I’m kicking myself a little because I had Allen Ray on the bench [against the Kings] and he had a great game the other night. It’s tough, because you try to get Gerald going. You try to get him to fight through tough nights. The only way you do that is by leaving him on the floor. Tonight is a night a probably shouldn’t have done that, “ Rivers mused after deciding to sit Ray in favor of encouraging Green.

Rivers wants his best players to develop, but he must be consistent with his message to ALL the players in order to get an effort out of each and every one of them. If Rivers determined playing time and role responsibility strictly off of potential, he’d risk creating an atmosphere entitlement for those he handpicked as the “future” of the franchise. At the same time, the Celtics would cease being a team and would begin to play as a collection of individuals, a gang of pirates playing against each other in a cutthroat battle for moving up the minute’s totem pole.

By clearly defining to the players what it takes to get on the floor, all his players feel like they receive equal treatment and each clearly knows what he has to do to get on the floor, as well as what will get him off of it.

Every player to the man knows that they must perform. Gerald Green plays harder and embraces coaching instruction more because he knows that playing time is afforded to him by production, not the reaction his name produces when he’s introduced to the crowd.

When Rivers plays 10 or more players on a given night-when he has that luxury-its because he’s fostering the sense of equality and camaraderie needed to keep a young group together and fighting. This is how he prevents a “culture of losing” to set in.

“Looking at the score every night, they’re closer than they think. But losses hurt. It hurts us all. Every night you come into that locker room and they got their heads down, its tough. Tomorrow we’ve got to build them back up and push them out there on Wednesday. That’s what we’re doing.”

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