On Thursday night, the Boston Celtics were undermanned against the grindfathers. The Memphis Grizzlies were the progenitors of “grit ‘n’ grind” basketball. But it was Boston who gritted ‘n’ grinded their way to one of their best wins of the year.
And that’s just how Boston fans like it.
Close your eyes and think about your favorite Celtics team.
If you’re an older fan, you might think of Bill Russell and Bob Cousy leading Boston against the flashy Los Angeles Lakers and always coming out on top. If your mind goes to the 1970s, you probably think of Dave Cowens battling as an undersized center while John Havlicek outran every opponent.
If you grew up on the Big 3 teams of the 1980s, you see Larry Bird diving on the floor, Kevin McHale clotheslining Kurt Rambis and Robert Parish laying out Bill Laimbeer. Late-2000s fans will instantly see Paul Pierce diving to beat LeBron James to a loose ball, while Kevin Garnett thumped his chest, popped his jersey and let loose a string of unprintable epithets.
More recent fans will think of Isaiah Thomas dominating as King In the 4th. Or maybe it’s rookie Jayson Tatum going chest-to-chest with LeBron James in Game 7.
Those are the memories Celtics fans cherish and hold dear. Those are the teams Boston wants to root for. The gritty underdogs who fight and never give up, no matter the odds.
In late-August, after most of his roster maneuvering was done in his first offseason running the front office for the Celtics, Brad Stevens talked about his team. As Stevens is apt to do, he repeated the same phrase a few times. It’s how he emphasizes an important point and conveys what he thinks is the key takeaway for those listening.
That day Stevens said, “We want to be a team Boston can be proud of.” Then he repeated it a few times, in a few different ways. This included saying “We want to be a team that Boston can really get behind. A team that plays with great edge. One that plays with grit and toughness.”
Brad Stevens’ early teams were defined by a couple of hallmarks. They were tough. They didn’t care who you were and that they were supposed to lose. They were going to go right at you. And those teams played together.
It’s regularly talked about how players should play for the name on the front of the jersey and not the one on the back. But those are words that often repeated and rarely put into practice. Those early Stevens’ teams practiced what they preached. They were personified by Isaiah Thomas bruised, bloodied and beaten, but going down swinging amidst personal tragedy.
In 2018, Danny Ainge’s masterplan all came together. He lured Gordon Hayward away from the Utah Jazz to play for his old coach. Then, when no one expected it, Ainge swung a blockbuster for Kyrie Irving. All of a sudden, Boston was no longer a scrappy underdog. There were expectations of Banner 18.
That lasted 5:15 into opening night.
But a funny thing happened. That team lost on opening night, but somehow managed to have two shots in the air to tie the four-time Finals-bound Cavaliers in the waning seconds. The next night, the still shellshocked Celtics lost a close one at home to the Milwaukee Bucks. It would be over a month before they’d lose again.
Hayward was out, but that Celtics team had that look. Then, in mid-March, Kyrie Irving was out for the rest of the season. So much for Banner 18.
But again, a funny thing happened. That star-less Celtics team won six straight to close March. Then they went to the playoffs and beat the Bucks. Then they beat the Sixers. And then they took LeBron James and the Cavs right to the brink before falling in Game 7.
The future was bright. Or at least we all thought.
That Game 7 group was led by Marcus Smart and Terry Rozier being backcourt bulldogs. Al Horford was the steady hand up front. And Jayson Tatum and Jaylen Brown were maybe just a little too young to realize it really isn’t this easy to win in the NBA.
The next year, everything was off. Everyone who was part of the playoff run was still there, but Hayward and Irving returned too. Too many cooks, too many sailors, too much of a good thing…pick your phrase. They all work.
That group was never really gritty. They were never tough. And they were never really together.
Oh, they tried. They yelled. They got in the face of opponents. But it never felt real. It felt forced. Like it was more for themselves as individuals than it was for the name on the front of the jersey.
That summer, Ainge tried to change the vibes after Irving left town. Marcus Morris left too, as did Rozier. And so did Al Horford. This would be Tatum, Brown and Hayward’s team with an ever-smiling Kemba Walker joining the fray.
Gone were the scowls from 2019. Also gone? The last of the grit from 2015 to 2018.
Sure, we liked that Celtics team. They were really becoming something when the season paused for the pandemic. When things picked up in the bubble, Boston looked good, but never really looked like they had “it”. Walker was still smiling, but it was clear his knee wasn’t right. Hayward got hurt in Game 1 of the Playoffs, but the Celtics still made it to the Eastern Conference Finals again.
And then they ran into a team that was what they used to be: gritty, tough and a pain to play against.
That Miami Heat team made you earn everything. Nothing was going to be easy. And the Celtics faltered and lost.
And that’s when everything changed.
Last season, Boston looked done almost from the jump. Physically worn down. Mentally worn out. They looked tired and tired of each other. There was no bubble in 2020-21, but teams were basically in their own traveling bubbles. They were with each other all the time.
By the time last season ended, everyone needed a change. And boy did change come.
Danny Ainge stepped down and Brad Stevens moved upstairs. A different voice would lead the Celtics front office for the first time in 18 years. And a new voice would lead the locker room for the first time in eight years.
And then Stevens went about building a team Boston could be proud of.
It started with hiring a no-nonsense coach in Ime Udoka. Jayson Tatum, Jaylen Brown and Marcus Smart signed off on Udoka based on their Team USA experience with him. They knew Udoka would coach them hard and they said they wanted it.
Then Stevens moved Kemba Walker in a move that was about shedding salary. But it was also about bringing back Al Horford and his veteran presence to the locker room. Horford was one of Stevens guys and he got him back.
Despite the pleas of many to get someone else, Stevens handed the point guard keys to Marcus Smart and he handed Smart a contract extension too.
The message from Day 1 was clear: This will be Tatum and Brown’s team, but Smart will be the team’s heartbeat. And Horford will be their conscience.
Stevens committed money to Robert Williams when many still questioned if he could play more than 20 minutes per game for a month without getting injured. Beyond that, Stevens didn’t add another big, leaving Williams to sink or swim as the team’s starting center. Stevens bet that without his water wings, Williams would soar. And soar he has.
At the trade deadline, Stevens went and got one his guys, as he brought Daniel Theis back. Rugged and tough, Theis will be there when needed, but won’t bark if he goes a few days without playing. Another Stevens guy.
And then Stevens went and got Ime Udoka one of his guys in Derrick White. Even as everyone screamed “We need shooting!”, Stevens doubled and tripled down on building the kind of team he wanted, and the kind he knew Udoka could succeed with. A team that would defend, move the ball and play together.
Stevens built a team Boston can be proud of.
Playing with a great edge? Check. The Celtics will dunk on you, tell you about it, flex a bit and then walk away laughing to high-fives from their teammates.
A team that plays with grit and toughness? Check and check. Udoka’s “switch everything” scheme demands you hold your own, no matter who you are asked to defend. You might catch an elbow or get throw around a little. You’ll hit a million screens. You will get knocked down, but you’ll get back up with a little help from your teammates.
The Celtics lost their edge, grit and toughness in 2019. They found a smile in 2020, but it felt like smiling through the pain. Those were good teams, but not teams Boston can be proud of.
After beating the Grizzlies, Jayson Tatum was asked what’s changed for the Celtics. He said “Watching us now, we play with a lot more passion and we just seem like we’re having a lot more fun. Obviously when you’re winning you tend to play with a little more enthusiasm and smile and laugh and things like that.”
Part of that is the winning, but a bigger part is how the Celtics are winning. Playing Boston is again a pain in the ass for opponents. You’re going to get hit. The Celtics are going to take charges. They’re going to talk to you all game.
Knock down a Celtics player now, two guys push you out of the way, while the other two pick their teammate up off the floor.
The Celtics still smile. But those smiles are the earned smiles of knowing they’ve pushed their opponent past the breaking point. And they’ll keeping pushing and needling you. All while their Celtics teammates back them up and over 19,000 screaming TD Garden fans whip themselves into a frenzy.
Banner 18 might come. Or it might not. But that’s something we can deal with later. For now, Brad Stevens has built a team that plays with a great edge. It’s a team that plays with grit and toughness.
For the first time in a few years, the Celtics are a team Boston can be proud of.