That wasn’t a normal flight to San Francisco. Somehow the Celtics were transported to Narnia and now everything is bright and beautiful in the world. There’s a bounce in everyone’s step all of a sudden. Shoulders formerly hunched over are now straight and proud. Smiles are everywhere and the laughter is infectious once again.
The old adage that “winning cures everything” remains true, but in this case the good vibes seemed to start before the win in Golden State. In fact, by all accounts it appears that the good vibes served as the catalyst to propel this team forward to victory.
But what could have possibly changed to bring about such a rapid turnaround? How could they go from losing 5 out of 6 games to immediately throttling the defending champs and then defeating a plucky Kings team without the help of Kyrie Irving? And perhaps more importantly, will it last?
Perhaps a hint comes to us from what Brad Stevens talked with Kyrie Irving about. (via MassLive)
“Ultimately, I don’t necessarily only spend time thinking about these guys as the basketball players with the capes on,” Stevens said. “Spend a lot more time trying to put ourselves in other shoes and understanding all the things that they have to carry. I think Kyrie has obviously had an incredible year. He’s a six-time All-Star, he was an All-Star again, and he was a no-brainer All-Star. I also think he has shouldered a heavy, heavy load, and there’s a lot that comes with that, and there’s a lot of stress that comes with that. And I think he would be the first to tell you that this year hasn’t gone exactly how he hoped, but this year is not over.”
That first sentence seems critical to me. Stevens focuses on these players as human beings first. Each of these guys has their own personal expectations, feelings, pressures, outside influences, ambitions, setbacks, struggles, distractions, and motivations going on behind the scenes. Basketball can be either a release from those things or it can be a complicating factor that merely amplifies everything.
As an individual, it can feel like there’s an invisible weight pulling you down and all your efforts to shrug it off only make the thing weigh more.
I don’t travel with the team and even if I did I couldn’t get inside their heads, but if I had to venture a guess as to what they’ve found out on the West coast I would suggest that they’ve found each other.
As Ecclesiastes states:
Two are better than one, because they have a good return for their labor:
If either of them falls down, one can help the other up.
But pity anyone who falls and has no one to help them up.
It feels like these Celtics are finally starting to play for one another instead of simply playing with each other. There are no stats to back this up and inference based on body language and quotes is dicey at best. Still, caveats aside, this team just feels more together right now.
Every player learns the right lines to say in front of the cameras about “playing as a team” and “working together” but translating that to the court isn’t always as easy as it sounds. In particular when some of the distractions surrounding you involve your teammates.
Personally, I don’t buy the notion that these guys “don’t like each other.” They got along great last year with much the same squad. Maybe some players got distracted by the shine they got from a long playoff run and forgot what it took to make that run. Maybe they started hearing too many competing voices telling them what role they should have on this team an in the league.
Which brings us to the media’s role in all of this. Someone like Terry Rozier has had to deal with trade rumors, a diminished role in a contract year, and a level of critical scrutiny he hasn’t faced yet in his career. Depending on the day, Jayson Tatum and Jaylen Brown are either the faces and future of the franchise or walking poker chips being shoved around a high stakes table. And Kyrie Irving is finally feeling all the pressures and responsibilities of being a franchise player.
The media is doing their job to cover, analyze, and editorialize about the state of the team. The players have a responsibility to the league to make themselves available to those in the media. When things are going well, that’s a lot easier. When things start trending downward, it is a lot harder and the media can play an unconscious role in snowballing things further.
By this point, Kyrie Irving is tired of talking about Kyrie Irving (though his introspective nature and desire to express himself still wins out). Jaylen Brown is low-key frustrated at having his “toxic” comment taken out of context. Even the mild-mannered Brad Stevens is done with answering the repeated questions about Gordon Hayward’s confidence. Speaking as a small part of the media, I don’t believe that it is in itself an evil or ill-intentioned thing, but I can certainly see why it can be frustrating when taken as a whole.
This is NBA team building 101 right here. When all else fails, blame the media and rally around each other with an us-against-the-world mentality. Being on the road for a West coast trip actually helps that bunker mentality because the players and coaches are in continual contact and largely isolated from outside forces.
While the comforts of home are always nice to come home to, it can be therapeutic and freeing to get away and focus on the task at hand. The hope here is that the team can gather up enough positive momentum on this road trip that once they get back to Boston they can rally around the memory of that successful road trip and use that as motivation to continue those same vibes.
Of course all of this is merely conjecture from a glorified fanboy who fancies himself a member of the exclusive club that calls itself media. All these positive vibes could vanish in the blink of a 3rd quarter collapse and we’d be right back to body language doctors and whispers about a doomed future …but first, Pearl Jam!
Still, I’m enjoying the oasis that these past two games have provided and I’m hoping that it continues. If indeed they’ve found some key to unlocking the prodigious potential that this team has, they are doing it at just about the right time. If they have found that proverbial switch, then there’s still just enough time to gather momentum for the run up to the playoffs and carry that tide as far as it will take them in the Spring. Just keep these vibes going and we’ll see where they take us.