There were plenty of remarkable things about the Boston Celtics win 120-106 over the Milwaukee Bucks Tuesday night. After all, this was a night when rising star Jaylen Brown dueled MVP candidate Giannis Antetokounmpo to a draw and the short handed Celtics squad took a 2-0 lead that few expect from them. Marcus Morris brought the “Marcus-based chippiness” the Garden has grown accustomed to seeing and Terry Rozier made himself a cozy condo-style flat inside the cerebral cortex or Eric Bledsoe. There was lots to be excited about in the Celtics win, but one largely unassuming part of the game stuck out to me.
Guerschon Yabuesele checked into his first NBA playoff game Tuesday night and he had about the statline you might expect from a rookie’s 11-minute, postseason debut. The Dancing Bear had zero points on his two (three point) shot attempts and he finished with three rebounds, two steals and an assist. However, watch the Bear in game and his minutes were remarkably, well… rotation worthy. He only fouled once, boxed out, and contributed hustle plays that led to uncredited positives, like this offensive rebound that led to a Rozier three.
As much as I’d love to dedicate an entire post to eleven minutes of Guerschon Yabusele’s playing time, seeing him play real, non-garbage minutes in a playoff game made me realize something. Yabu has sort of become a personification of this Celtics season as a whole. His joyful demeanor, role as a deep bench victory cigar in blowouts, and his radiant “bow and arrow Dab”’ celebrations are all so perfectly exuberant that he’s come to represent the “having fun” part of enjoying sports. Ask any coach and they will tell you that winning is fun and losing is not, but it’s also easy to have fun when there’s no pressure.
Yabusele is a remainder from a hectic 2016 draft in which the Celtics had eight picks in the draft and used six of them to draft players. Other GMs tried to squeeze Danny Ainge, confident that he would need to make some sort of deal with the massive amount of draft capital he had acquired. However, he refused to deal for a price that he didn’t like, and he was left with a conundrum. With a roster that was already packed, he had to find stashable players for some of his picks to alleviate the roster crunch. This lead to him picking Yabusele higher than many might have thought and stashing the Frenchman internationally for a year. In this way, Yabusele’s presence on the roster is quite literally a representation of Danny Ainge’s refusal to compromise, no matter what you may think of it.
The Irving trade and need to squeeze the payroll to fit Gordon Hayward led to an exodus of Celtics players who had kept the competitive lights on during the early Brad Stevens years. Obviously Isaiah Thomas’s role can’t be overstated, but players like Kelly Olynyk, Jae Crowder, Avery Bradley, Amir Johnson, Jonas Jerebko, and Tyler Zeller (who ALL, by the way, had important moments in one way or another between 2015 and 2017) were all suddenly casualties of the Danny Ainge “stars or bust” mindset. This was, for all intents as purposes, a team designed to be three All-Stars surrounded by young players and four veterans to fill out the rotation. The kids were supposed to learn in the shadows and provide support while the stars ran the show. Marcus Smart, Rozier, Brown, and Jayson Tatum were the first Celtics picks in the draft each of the past four years, and I think the front office would have been pleased if only one of them made the leap to maturity. It’s gone better than that.
Adversity has a way of making you grow up fast and these same Celtics Kids are suddenly standing astride a bloodied Bucks team starting three players who will still be on their rookie scale contracts next year. The Celtics two best players are gone until next year and yet it doesn’t seem to matter to this set of Boston youth. By the virtue of Gang Green winning two games, it’s looking increasingly likely that Marcus Smart will return to postseason minutes (thoughts with the whole Smart family on the horrific news coming out this week), likely in Shane Larkin’s role. Were that to happen, the Celtics would actually get more formidable and younger.
These Celtics rascals were supposed to have no chance without their star players, and it is likely that the odds will catch up with them at some point. However, there’s something to be said for how quickly the seeds Danny Ainge planted have come to bear fruit. Part of that can likely be attributed to master gardener Brad Stevens, but credit has to go to the players, first and foremost, on their mentality to improve. This season with all it’s setbacks and misfortune, has become a season of found money. It’s a time when the Celtics can play without pressure and simply focus on beating the opponent in front of them. Ainge stamped this team with his refusal to compromise, and those upside gambles are paying dividends.
Which brings me back to Yabusele, who I never dreamed in a hundred years would see meaningful basketball minutes this postseason. To see him prance of the bench was, in itself, strange, but to see him be relatively effective was downright reality-bending. At this stage in his career, The Dancing Bear has largely been a happy symbol; an avatar of the relaxed basketball played when the result is no longer in question. To see him be a fixture in a playoff where there the Celtics will need to fight for every inch they get… well, it seems incorrect. But also calming.
There were a lot of questions for Celtics fans entering the season, and the playoffs haven’t done much to change that. However, which each passing game those queries reduce and get quieter all while the truth comes into sharper focus. After all, we all know the most famous saying about truth-telling in basketball.