A little over a year ago, the Boston Celtics showed up at the Amway Center to play the Orlando Magic coming off a defeat to the Heat the previous night in Miami. During the loss to Miami, tempers flared up during a stoppage in play and Marcus Morris angrily pushed away Jaylen Brown. A night later in Orlando, things really went off the rails for the Celtics.
With two second left, trailing by two points, Gordon Hayward took the ball out of bounds. Brad Stevens drew up a play for Kyrie Irving coming out of the backcourt to get a look at either a game-tying or game-winning shot. Hayward instead passed to Jayson Tatum, who missed a fallaway jumper at the buzzer.
At the end of the above clip, you can see an exasperated Irving letting Hayward have it. He comes all the way up the court to ask Hayward why he would pass the ball to the second-year player versus going to the proven All-Star.
Following the game, Irving unleashed a now-infamous rant where he called out Boston’s younger players for not knowing what takes to win big games. Without naming names, Irving questioned whether the Celtics would get where they wanted to go relying on youngsters like Tatum and Brown. He stopped short of suggesting roster changes, but the implication was clear. Irving was done with this group of Celtics.
Two nights later, the losing streak reached three games. Boston then rallied to win five straight. A couple of months later they went on the famous cross-country flight that supposedly fixed everything before they blasted the Warriors in Oracle. It was all just window dressing. This was the equivalent of parents who are happy around the kids and in front of the neighbors, but behind closed doors are living like two strangers. It’s broken, but they stay together because admitting it’s broke is to admit failure and to endure embarrassment. Two months after that West Coast trip, the season ended with a whimper in the second round playoff loss to the Milwaukee Bucks.
Most remember that Bucks series as the low-point for the 2018-19 Boston Celtics. That was just the inevitable putting to rest of a miserable season that had hit its nadir months earlier in Orlando. It was like when those parents finally have their big blowup in front of everyone at the neighborhood barbecue. It happened in the ugliest, most public way possible, even if it was really over long before then.
At shootaround before the Magic game in January of 2019, players spent the entire morning talking about Morris shoving Brown. Veterans like Morris, Irving and Al Horford said it was nothing. It was just something that happens every year and this time it just happened to get caught by the cameras. Younger players spoke about the need for the team to be accountable and to stay together through tough times. We didn’t know it at the time, but that was our first understanding that the Celtics kids were the mature ones. The veterans were selfish and unwilling to take the youngsters under their wing. That trip to Florida ended the season. We just didn’t know it for four more months.
A year later, a very different Boston Celtics team showed up in Orlando. This time around, Brown and Tatum were injured and wouldn’t play. The team’s veterans, Kemba Walker and Gordon Hayward, talked about the need of them to step up as leader with the young stars hurting and help the team to a win. Brown and Tatum both talked about how excited they were for Walker to be voted in as an All-Star starter the day before.
You know what else was present in Orlando this January morning that wasn’t a year ago? Smiles. Laughter. Good-natured ribbing. A group that genuinely wants to be together and is having fun. A bunch of guys who have a shared vision and care for each other. In other words: a team.
The 2019-20 Boston Celtics might not have as much individual talent as the 2018-19 team. But individuals don’t win basketball games. Teams do. The results thus far speak for themselves. This year, after 44 games, the Celtics are 30-14. Last year? 26-18. A four-game difference has never felt bigger.
This group might not go any further in the playoffs than last year’s group did. It’s a long season and a lot is left to be decided. The Eastern Conference is better and deeper than it was a year ago. Boston’s depth has been tested with a roster that has rarely been healthy. Just getting to the postseason healthy would be a monumental accomplishment at this point.
But…this group might go further. We’ve seen how good they are when the players are all available. They can beat anyone, and have, with wins over both the Milwaukee Bucks and Los Angeles Lakers. Again, we have no idea what’s to come. But we do know this much: There aren’t going to need to be any magic plane rides that solve the team’s ills. Most importantly, whenever this season does end, instead of being distressingly happy that an exhausting season is over, we’ll be sad to say goodbye to a tough, scrappy group that Celtics fans love to root for. What a difference a year makes.