It can be hard, particularly in sports, to shed old labels.
Barring a loud transformation, fans tend to immortalize you as you were when they first met you. It’s the reason Blake Griffin’s steady growth took so long to become a national topic. Once we saw him leap over a KIA, it was all we could see.
The asphyxiation of diminutive labels isn’t a right exclusive to individual players. However, in a down season, teams’ entire cores have found themselves to be prime immortalization fodder. So, when the 2018-19 Celtics fell far below preseason expectations, not even the young Celtics were spared of misinformed labels.
Tatum was a mid-range chucking Kobe acolyte, Brown was an indecisive over thinker, and Marcus Smart could do it all except for the thing the modern NBA valued the most. When they added Walker, it raised their ceiling, but not necessarily back to contender status in the eyes of NBA prognosticators. Then, they rattled off 10 straight wins, and the perception around the team and its players began to change.
While the team was narrowly denied a history making 11th straight win, they still only have reasons to smile.
The effect of losing cultures on individual players defensive effort and ratings cannot be overstated.
Eric Bledsoe looked like he had forgotten what defense was, while he toiled away for a hapless Suns team. But then, one tweet and a new zip code later, he was earning all-defensive first team votes.
Looking at Kemba Walker, you would give him a pass for being an average defender. He’s far from the tallest player on the court and his build, while not slight, doesn’t portend to stopping the freight trains of the NBA.
But a good portion of defense is effort. And free from serving as the sole life preserver of a hapless Charlotte team, Walker has shown real defensive tenacity.
Against the Kings, in throes of what would be there second loss, Walker looked downright feisty from the minute he touched the floor. As the game wore on, Kemba’s on ball fervor rarely wavered.
It’s subtle but it’s something we were never sure about with Hornets Kemba. While he’s no Marcus Smart, Kemba isn’t in the business of mailing it in on the defensive end of the floor.
While they were drafted a year apart from one another, Tatum and Brown seem to be bonded together, for better or worse. They were the architects of a shocking Eastern Conference Finals run, and then the stagnating duo that were unable to support Kyrie in last season’s playoffs. While the media began to worry about reassessing their ceilings, they got to work on attacking their deficiencies.
For Tatum, completely changing your shot profile is not an easy process. Yet it’s something that he seems wholeheartedly committed to. As such knocking him for quiet nights, seems incredibly short sighted. Especially when he’s finding other ways to make him presence felt.
On a tame scoring night against the Kings, Tatum exerted a lot of energy on the defensive end. Moving well laterally and making it difficult for his assignment to straight line drive towards the basket, as well as getting back on defense with aplomb. For his efforts he was rewarded with an impressive block early in the first quarter:
Tatum lead the team in plus-minus at +12 (Tatum also leads the league in overall plus minus).
Brown on the other hand, continued to show a commitment to attacking the teeth of the defense, to either make a play for himself or for his teammates. While his forays weren’t finding much success early--he had a few ugly turnovers--he managed to get settled in the second half.
Sometimes in tight games players can fall back into old habits so it was encouraging to see Brown continue to show a balance between being aggressive and moving the ball. The less Brown overthinks the game, the more dangerous he is.
We’ve already gone on at length about Smart’s much improved shooting on the site. But its hard not to be continually impressed when you watch him getting them up, especially when you consider how much he once struggled in that department. For reference here’s a three he hit late in the second quarter:
While his shots didn’t fall tonight (he shot 1/8 from the 3PT line), his form remained as smooth as it has all season. Giving credence to the idea that, Marcus Smart three-point shooter, may be here to stay. If so, the team’s MIP just got a whole lot more important.
Regardless of a team’s seasonal aspirations, watching players blossom into the better version of themselves is always something to be celebrated. Doubly so when, even on an off night, signs of growth continued to show their head (albeit in smaller sample sizes). While a last second loss hurts the growth of their win streak, the growth of Boston core players continues at its torrid pace.