Thirteen months ago, Kemba Walker joined Jayson Tatum, Jaylen Brown, and Marcus Smart on Team USA and the foundation of this team was established. For the entire year (plus), there have been nothing but rave reviews about the team’s chemistry. Part of that is surely a natural contrast to the dysfunction of the previous season where anything would look good in comparison. But there’s a legit sense of bonding and togetherness within this team. As a result, the team was able to weather the storm of adversity and potentially come out stronger on the other side.
I won’t belabor the contrasting narrative of the 2018-19 Celtics except to point out that many key players on this season’s team know full well the dangers of team chemistry gone sideways. Tatum, Brown, and Smart (among others) have gone through that particular fire and come away refined and more mature. That doesn’t mean that everything is sunshine and lollipops. Each guy has his own unique (and often strong willed) personality that they bring to the table.
Take Jaylen and Marcus for example (since it seemed like they were the main participants in the post-Game 2 shouting incident). I don’t have any first hand relationships with either guy, so I can only speculate based on their reputation and observing them on the court. Smart seems like the kind of guy that lays it all out there, heart on his sleeve, with strong convictions that he’s right. Brown, meanwhile, is a deep thinker that isn’t afraid to challenge people he doesn’t agree with, no matter who it is. Mix those two types of people together in a high stakes, high pressure situation and things could get emotional quickly. Again, all pure inferred speculation from afar, so grain of salt.
Several Celtics described the team dynamic as a family. Families have bonds that are developed over years of love and support. They are more than the collection of shared experiences. There’s an emotional togetherness that allows them to thrive even when being challenged and tested. Sometimes those dynamics create confrontational circumstances within the family. Depending on how that situation is handled, it can be a growing, maturing experience that brings the family even closer together than before. But it has to be done right.
Enter into this equation a few solid, steady leaders that have a well built reputation for being a positive influence on those around them. Look up the term “even keeled” and you’ll likely find a picture of Brad Stevens. He’s the “process over results” patriarch and the team has witnessed first hand that when you focus on that process, the long term results actually come along anyway.
Then there’s Kemba Walker who is literally an award-winning teammate and a universally admired and liked individual. Finally, there’s Jayson Tatum, who is the classic “let my actions speak louder than my words” guy with somewhat of an aw-shucks demeanor off the court (while being a stone cold assassin on the court). He rarely says the wrong thing and has bought in fully to his coach’s mantra.
Put all of those guys in a room (at say, 1 AM) and let them hash things out the right way and see if that doesn’t create a positive result. This situation is more dynamic than that simple equation of course. Who knows what gripes and annoyances each player has with the other guys in that room and locker room? However, I have a good amount of faith that the combined will and desire of the men on this team is to move forward together in a positive direction.
Chemistry isn’t a binary formula. It isn’t just “good” or “bad” and it doesn’t happen overnight. Not all teams can hope to have “perfect” chemistry, if that sort of thing even exists. Adding in the dynamic of the NBA bubble and the pressure of the playoffs only tests the pressure points further.
Luckily this team has been building to this moment for over a year. They love and trust each other like a family. They know each others strengths and weaknesses and they have each other’s backs, even after they are at each other’s throats. I’m not saying that everything is fine or that “no really, this was a good thing!” I am, however, suggesting that this team’s long developed chemistry is stronger than any one incident and may indeed be further strengthened by the recent struggles and efforts to reconcile.
Game 3 showed that this team can bounce back from a hard loss with a good, winning effort. But there were moments when it looked like the same repeating patterns were threatening to derail them again. This time they hung on. That’s good progress and on Wednesday, they’ll have another chance to improve again.