BS: With Boston seemingly turning a corner, the narrative has shifted from the collective “why are the Celtics so bad” to now laser focus on individual players, most notably of late, the recovering Jaylen Brown and Scary Terry Terry Rozier. Fans aren’t satisfied with how good the team might be playing as a whole; fans want all the tide to be rising and the harbor to be overflowing into South Boston.
This is the price of expectation. I have yet to see A Star Is Born, but my guess is, it ends with things breaking, glass, hearts, or otherwise. The trailer makes it seem like the leap from nowhere to stardom (and the subsequent fall) is a compromising proposition. It’s maybe a journey all too familiar for many of the Celtics.
Last spring, Boston birthed career post-seasons for their trio of millennials—Brown, Rozier, and Jayson Tatum—and now, they’ve lost a little of that shine and aren’t happy living in their parents’ (Kyrie Irving, Al Horford, and Gordon Hayward in this analogy) basement. Their closest mentor in their age bracket is Marcus Smart who revels in the dirty work, but I’m not sure if those guys are ready to be role players like that. How do you see the Celtics finding the mix of dirty and stardom and what it means once everyone will be healthy?
RN: I think that players legitimately thought that they could individually level up this summer, steal a little bit of TMac here, a little bit of Kobe there, and seamlessly show off their new tricks alongside four other teammates come fall (like that deceptive split screen effect in Conversations with Other Women — where it’s revealed to us only in the last frame that the entire narrative of their fraught relationship had been filmed separately and stitched together in post production to brilliantly conceived visual, yet, unsurprisingly terrible interpersonal effect).
The problem was, Peak Jaylen, Peak Tatum, Comeback Hayward, and Skinny Kyrie all being the starriest versions of themselves (alongside a noticeably tendonitis-hindered Al Horford) made for the NBA’s version of Babel in a sped up environment that puts a premium of cohesion and communication.
The whole conundrum speaks to identity. Are we All-Stars with a complementary cast of rising stars or are we a continuation of the surprising team that clicked and almost got to the Finals welcoming back our seasoned All-Stars? It may be a subtle distinction, but one the team clearly struggled with to open the season. In retrospect, the narrative that Rozier, Tatum and Brown probably took away from riding the team to a breath short of the Finals coupled with dismal individual Game 7 performances set the scene for this tacit standoff.
I was recently courted by some mysterious “customer networking scheme”, whose messenger assured me this wasn’t a “cult where we eat babies” (comforting), and proceeded to pepper me with questions like “are you willing to contribute to this business that Don and Schmon built regardless of what it is -- yes, it’s legal and ethical -- concerning yourself more with the ends ($$$$$) than the output of your personal contributions?” It’s not exactly the tenor of what Brad Stevens, Kyrie Irving and Al Horford have asked of the the team’s “young guys” (as Kyrie recently referred to the defendants), but it clearly didn’t line up with what they had in mind. The glimpse that Larkin gave us into Tatum’s psyche last year, when he let on that Tatum was sometimes envious of other rookies who had a longer leash, was pretty revealing about his (and likely others’) ambitions, in retrospect.
Luckily, a poop-laced start and back-to-back-to-back failed catharsis games later and everyone had gotten “connected” again; like ALL of the players miraculously plugged their avatar whip back back into the team’s neural network at the same time. Best laid plans, as they say.
Our moment of sudden synchronicity makes me think of Mike Malone, who said earlier this year: “We really clicked once we all realized that Nikola is our best player. We are going to play through him. He is the centerpiece of all that we do. And everybody else has to fit it around him. It makes things a lot easier and simpler”.
Kyrie’s turning in a spectacular season, and everyone around him is becoming more intuitive about when to let their talents sing. I thought Morris was the first one to really get the message about being aggressive driving the ball; Tatum’s exacting efficiency started resembling what he started last season; Horford started rolling more; eventually Jaylen and Rozier clicked into a better flow; and Smart ignited the whole thing with his generous mania and playmaking.
What’s your read on Stevens navigating these turbulent waters?
BS: I think Brad has handled it well. Think Robert Altman, like 70’s Altman or even 90’s Altman. Hell, all Altman, even bad Altman. There were stars in his films--a lot of them, including some of the most temperamental and most difficult to work with-- but he carved out space for everybody. For a director that thrived in filming big open spaces and having dialogue overlap with each other, he was a master at taking all those voices and boiling it all down into something that captured the human condition. That’s been Brad Stevens over the last ten games.
I’ve really appreciated his democratic process. He initially went with what he thought would be his best starting lineup, the star-studded fivesome with top billing, the vet Big Three of Horford, Hayward, and Kyrie plus the two Ocean’s Damons: Brown and Tatum. When it didn’t work, there wasn’t a lot of hand wringing about ego and deference. The Celtics just re-cast the starters with two more complementary bit players.
(Marcus Smart is a character actor, but just like Philip Seymour Hoffman or Paul Giamatti or John Turturro or Steve Buscemi are character actors. He’s a scene stealer and one of the best of his generation. Don’t get it twisted. Some have compared his promotion to the starting lineup as similar to Draymond Green usurping David Lee before the Warriors were the Warriors. I don’t completely buy it, but I know he’ll be a perennial Best Supporting Actor candidate for years to come.)
What’d I’d like to argue is this idea of “role player.” Let’s throw out that term, OK? Sure, there are a few on the roster. Aron Baynes is a role player. He’ll start when the team needs a heavy to face the likes of Joel Embiid, but he understands his limitations. You could throw Smart into that mix, but he’s got indie cred with the bloggers and diehards. Outside of that, Boston has seven guys that could put up 20+ a night and be the first name mentioned in a game recap. These players haven’t grown comfortable with their “roles.” They just understand when in the game their opportunity will come up and if they’re producing, they’ll play more. It’s not like Stevens has relegated Rozier or Brown to set screens for Kyrie or Hayward and sit in the corner until the ball finds them. He’s just blocked out the scenes, told his players to hit their marks on time, and called ACTION. If they’re killing it early, he’ll keep the cameras rolling, let them improvise a little, and add more scenes.
RN: John Turturro is spot on for Marcus Smart. One, for a character actor, he has tremendous range. Two, when thinking about his catalog, the thought came to me that “Human Eczema” wouldn’t be the worst nickname for Smart. For those who haven’t watched The Night Of, he plays a kind of lowly lawyer who is asked to represent a client who’s been caught seemingly red-handed in a gruesome murder.
But what he does with the role is truly astounding. He completely steals the show, and you end up caring more for Turturro and the tragic narrative arc of his relationship with his cat rather than about his client’s fate. When talking about preparing for the role, which on the page is nothing to write home about, he says: “I started thinking about all these people I know in different professions who are so talented but not that ambitious. Maybe they’re the best singer or a wonderful actor, but don’t have the hide or the constitution to take all the rejection. They may be as competent or more as the best people out there. A lot of talented, smart people don’t get opportunities to do the chosen thing they wanted to do.”
Ding ding ding. There are those who are just dogged about digging in and summoning inspiration from whatever script they’re handed. Memorable after memorable character role, and he’s become a go-to for just about every single one of our most revered directors without being the obvious “it” guy.
The way I personally see our players is: All-Star (Horford, Irving, Hayward), rising star (Tatum, Brown), bench starters (Morris, Rozier), special teams player (Smart, Ojeleye, Baynes — who can all key in on specific assignments) and role players (Theis, others). I leave Time Lord out because I think he’s a wildcard with a high ceiling. Brad Stevens has already shifted our mental models in terms of how we understand positions. And earlier this year, he set out to destroy the notion that it matters who starts the game. Fair enough. He then severed the conventional wisdom that what truly matters is who closes the game, and then took it a step further, admonishing us for even caring about who plays at all.
Where I think he went wrong was in skewing too far in the direction of glamour or stardom at the start at the season, with the likes of Theis and Ojeleye, players who had proven themselves to be non-negligeable components to the Celtics’ unique brand of firepower last season, relegated to spectator status.
I sadistically don’t mind non-serious regular season injuries because of what absence has a way of making visible. There’s nothing quite like a deprivation strategy to really get you to see what’s hiding at the end of your bench. Seeing Ojeleye nail some shots and start to develop confidence in other areas of his offense, and Theis go out there and flash his rare ability to crash and protect the rim and step outside of the arc, it’s obvious that these guys deserve time beyond stepping in admirably in times of roster anemia. This team needs a balance of grit & glamour to get it done.
As I’m iced from watching yesterday’s game against Phoenix (I’ve got the imperfect DirectTV Now and League Pass combo, where I don’t get to watch those mediocre no-man’s-land NBA TV matchups), I decided to watch Brad Stevens’ pre-game press conference. One thing I thought was stunning is that when asked about Marcus Morris being a scratch, he doesn’t know if it’s the same knee that limited Morris’ in his first season with the Celtics. In that respect, Brad is a weirdo director whose coaching obsession shines with such astronomical blindness that he literally doesn’t have the mental energy to expand on a distraction as extraneous as what players he will have at his disposal.
Note: I don’t know if this is one of those cases of the insanely busy and focused genius madman trying to reduce their cognitive lode (similar to the confession Obama made to Michael Lewis when he told him: “You’ll see I wear only gray or blue suits. I’m trying to pare down decisions. I don’t want to make decisions about what I’m eating or wearing. Because I have too many other decisions to make”), or if it’s simply because he has no control over that therefore knows better than to care.
Ok, so outside of the obvious “clearer hierarchy” explanation of the team’s newfound success, what are some sneaky variables that aren’t being talked about that are helping the Celtics perform the way they have of late? And do you think it’s a temporary arrangement?
BS: Well, even though he was hurt for half of the winning streak and take as much credit for the Celtics’ turnaround, I think it’s become evidently clear how much they miss Al Horford, particularly during this two-game bump in the road. We’ve both categorized Big Al as a A-lister All-Star on the roster, but he’s obviously not in the same stratosphere as Kyrie Irving (if he even believes in stratospheres) or the younger Gordon Hayward.
That sneaky variable you’re talking about are that certain players being living, breathing embodiments of their coach. It’s no surprise that the season turned around as soon as Brad inserted Smart into the starting lineup. It’s also why for the last two seasons, we’ve all talked about Al Horford being the most important Celtic to the team. He’s become Stevens’ muse late in Horford’s career, like Jeff Daniels has become the mouthpiece for Aaron Sorkin over the last few years. After pairing on a few movies and a TV show, the two have re-teamed to adapt To Kill A Mockingbird on Broadway. Eeeeek.
Basketball--like movies, tv, really life in all its parts--is made up of all these small little decisions that are so nuanced and almost imperceptible but when it’s played the right way, you recognize it almost immediately. I’m sure that’s the same feeling that Sorkin gets when Daniels performs his dialogue or Stevens gets when Horford hits a game-winning shot right off the X’s and O’s of his whiteboard. It’s why directors have their troupe of actors that they’ll span decades with and why Marcus Smart is the only player standing from when Stevens first started coaching.
I think there are going to be nights where the Celtics rely heavily on Kyrie or Tatum, like an action movie, Die Hard on a basketball court. There will be road trips where everybody chips in like in those mumblecore indies of the Duplass Brothers. There will be those Oscar-worthy wins where stars are being stars and end-of-the-bench players have their moments. But if I’m betting on a through line for the entire season, I’ll cast Smart and Horford in starring roles.