If you had the Timelord’s ability to travel through space and time, you could return to early November and view all the angst and hand wringing over the Celtics struggles as a neutral observer. Or perhaps more accurately you could smugly announce that all will be fine within a month.
We didn’t have that privilege at the time though and neither did the players. As much as all of us ultimately believed that the Celtics were too good to not figure things out, there wasn’t much evidence to support that faith. Some good teams just never figure things out (the Rockets, for example, are still trying to get their groove back).
Dozens of articles were written about what was wrong with the Celtics (and that’s just on CelticsBlog!). Threaded among the comments coming out of the locker room was a common narrative centered around “the young players.” That seemed to be code for Jayson Tatum, Jaylen Brown, and Terry Rozier without actually having to call them out by name.
Each played a huge role in getting the Celtics to the Eastern Conference Finals and each has had to take some degree of a step back in their roles this season now that Kyrie Irving and Gordon Hayward are back.
Everyone knew this would not be an easy transition, but most of us figured it would just work itself out in a matter of days. Instead, it lingered through a quarter of the regular season. Thankfully they are finally figuring things out and the key has been sacrifice and accepting new roles.
From Jackie MacMullan’s must read article on Jaylen Brown (among other things):
“It’s probably been the hardest thing I’ve had to deal with so far in my career,” Brown says. “Just coming from a position where you had so much responsibility, and now that responsibility is lessened. Expectations have been raised, but your responsibility goes down, so it’s hard to reach those expectations when you aren’t being asked to do as much.
”It’s been a challenge. It’s going to continue to be a challenge. It’s all about your mindset, so that’s what I’m focusing on.”
This is a very valid point. These guys now have much higher expectations for themselves (put there by both themselves and everyone around them) but fewer chances to deliver on that promise due to a reduced role. Every mistake is magnified by both the stage and the burden of expectations.
It has been said a million times. Basketball is a game of confidence. You can have the exact same open looks and the exact same shooting stroke 10 times in a row. If you make the first few, chances are pretty good that several more will fall. If you miss a few, it can snowball quickly in the other direction.
Looking back, it seems clear that Tatum, Brown, and Rozier were looking to win games “on their own terms,” which is just code for taking their own shots and believing that they can lead the team to victory that way. Brad Stevens clearly wants them to have the confidence to take and make shots, but not without working within the confines of the overall offensive strategy.
That’s why we heard a lot about sacrifice and putting the success of the team ahead of personal ambition. It was a clear message of Ubuntu all over again (just without the catchy name from the 2007-08 season). So far, it seems like the message has gotten through to the players. To their credit, it sounds like each one has internalized the lessons and worked on stepping up to the challenge.
Danny Ainge had this to say about Terry Rozier.
“Terry has good people around him, but there are a lot of guys who have that and don’t listen. This is Terry’s transformation, and sometimes it takes a little bit. He worked so hard all summer, he’s coming off a great playoff run, everybody knows how good he is, and then his role is adjusted. He played a lot of minutes [on Monday night], and he’ll have those opportunities throughout the year. It’s different than how he finished last year, but it’s still a really good role, and he’s figured that out on his own.”
I like to think of this team as an orchestra. A room full of brilliant musicians doesn’t automatically produce beautiful music if they don’t play together. A gifted soloist can’t take the lead if two other soloists are already jumping up to play. Sometimes a world class drummer simply must keep the beat while the violins add the rhythm and the brass section else carries the melody. The conductor oversees getting everyone on the same sheet of music, but the players still need to accept direction and play the right way.
The Celtics have won 7 straight games and a lot of that comes from the young players accepting and thriving in their reduced roles. Now that they’ve beat up on non-elite competition, the hope is that they’ll remember to stick to this formula against more difficult foes.
This team has a chance to be truly special. Having All Star talents in Kyrie Irving, Gordon Hayward, and Al Horford was enough to be excited about this season. But it was the young players fresh off a deep playoff run that made it feel like an elite collection of talent. As long as all the pieces fit together, they should be able to make beautiful music together.