While winning can be a cure-all and/or a cover up for whatever ails a team, it’s often what leads up to the winning that’s most important. After a disappointing loss to the Kings extended the Celtics losing streak to three, Brad Stevens spoke about the need for the players to “engage in each other.” What was wrong with Boston wasn’t defensive schemes or ball movement; it was the attitude that they played with on the floor and a lack of “teamness” when times got tough.
Before Sunday’s game against the Magic, the Celtics had fallen a game under .500 and 7th in the Eastern Conference. After a grueling first half of the year that included the most lost games to COVID health and safety protocols and double digit games lost to injury from Marcus Kemba Walker and Marcus Smart, Boston went an ugly 1-4 after the All-Star break. Times were tough and they weren’t responding.
By all accounts, the 2020-2021 Celtics team is without drama. This isn’t the 2019 squad that was ripping at the seams publicly and internally. From the front office to the coaching staff to the rookies on the team, there’s a good vibe throughout the organization that’s unfortunately not translated to winning games yet.
After losing to Sacramento--continuing a worrisome trend of fourth quarter collapses--the team met and discussed their issues.
“It was just us. We were focusing on what we want this season to be for us, what we want to leave behind this season. We didn’t want to be a team that just gave up or this or that about this season. We have enough time to turn it around and that’s all on us,” Marcus Smart said.
Although not the official captain, Smart is often seen as the heart and soul of the team. He’s the longest tenured Celtic on the roster and has played the most years under head coach Brad Stevens. Smart has seen every iteration in the Stevens era--the Hospital Celtics lead by Isaiah Thomas, the star-studded Celtics with Kyrie Irving, Al Horford, and Gordon Hayward, and the current rise of Jaylen Brown and Jayson Tatum--and knows what it will take for this team to make any noise in the playoffs.
“We understand that we haven’t been playing to the criteria that we expected and other expected us to. We are a young team and we’re learning. The biggest thing about growth is understanding and accepting the faults that you are wrong for yourself individually and as a team. The talk that we had, we did that. We just tried to sit down and just tried to figure it out and just listen to one another to help not ourselves but the team.”
Boston responded with a wire-to-wire trouncing of the visiting Orlando Magic. They registered 27 assists on 40 made field goals, including 23 three-pointers, just one shy of the team’s record.
“Guys played with a great mindset today, shared it, played with good purpose, good passion, good togetherness. It was a step in the right direction for sure,” Stevens said before the team heads out on a four-game road trip next week, including a two-game min-series in Milwaukee. “Put a few weeks, a month or two months together, where it likes that and we’ll be making good progress.”
Jaylen Brown hit ten of those shots from behind the arc, but he understands that at this point of the season, it’s not about individual accomplishments.
“I like how we played today. I thought we had some good ball movement and it was just contagious. We gotta find a way to maintain that,” Brown said. “As a leader, I’ve challenged myself and all of us really—Kemba, JT, Smart—guys that have been here, all challenge ourselves to be better and to get more out of this group and that’s what we’re focused on.”
Brown is no stranger to team-only meetings. Back in 2019, he had a run-in with teammate Marcus Morris on the sidelines and aired his frustration to media about certain locker room dynamics. Now, as one of the elder statesmen of the team, he’s taken on more leadership responsibility.
“We know that we’ve underperformed. We’ve kind of had that extra pressure on us just from everybody and all the outside forces. I just told our guys to focus on us,” Brown said. “Forget about what the media is saying. Forget about what the fans are saying. Just come out and play some good basketball. Let’s see where the chips fall.”
In addition to lost games to COVID-19 and injury, the Celtics are also trying to develop a young roster that’s comprised of ten players on rookie contracts. Brown and Tatum are seen as the leaders of the team, but they don’t have years of experience to lean on. Everybody is learning at this point and the growing pains on the court haven’t fractured their camaraderie.
“It’s tough because we are so close, but when we get on the court, it doesn’t correlate and we’re just looking like, “what’s going on?” It’s hard to fix it because nobody knows. We step off the court and we’re all laughing with each other. We’re really close,” Smart said.
“It’s definitely strange for us and unorthodox. It’s very important for us to come out like we did today and have that energy, especially while you’re on the bench when those guys are in. Cheer on your teammates and be as optimistic as you can to help those guys get their confidence and help the team. When everybody joined in, it showed tonight. Especially more than ever with the crowd, you gotta bring that type of energy, more than ever now. Ten fold.”
As underwhelming as the Celtics have been, they’re still in the fight to host a first round series in the postseason. Less than four games separate the #4 and #10 seeds in the East. The win against the Magic will be forgotten as soon as the Celtics tip off against the Grizzlies later this evening, but it should serve as a blueprint of how this team needs to play to be their best selves. And on March 29th, the Celtics will be adding an important sixth man to their roster when TD Garden invites a limited number of fans through their doors.
“It’s clear that we can’t do it with three guys at once, with four guys at once, with two guys at once, with one guy. We have to do it with all five on every possession on both sides of the floor,” Stevens said.
At some point, Brown and Tatum will be better equipped to take on more responsibility on the floor. Coincidentally, the bench will have more playing time under their belt and will be better served to compliment them. Maybe that’s by April. Maybe that’s next season. But until then, the Celtics have the simple yet monumental task of playing as a team.