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Elite veteran leadership will help the Celtics overcome unprecedented early adversity

They’ve given absolutely no indication that this will prevent them from competing for a championship.

NBA: Finals-Golden State Warriors at Boston Celtics
Al Horford is a steadying and reliable presence.
David Butler II-USA TODAY Sports

This has been a truly dizzying and unparalleled calendar year for the Celtics.

It’s been frustrating, revitalizing, uplifting, agonizing, promising, disappointing, confusing and has circled all the way back to frustrating. There hadn’t been a season since at least 2010 – maybe ever – that elicited such a wide range of emotions.

The Celtics could have won the championship. They probably should have. But this journey is far from finished. In a way, it’s really just beginning.

Following the heartbreak, everything was rosy again when the Celtics acquired Danilo Gallinari and Malcolm Brogdon. Perhaps these were exactly the missing pieces they needed. An elite ball-handler and penetrator, and someone who could provide scoring off the bench. The parade planning could commence.

Then everything unraveled quickly. Really quickly. Gallinari tore his ACL, Robert Williams required another surgery, then his timeline was pushed back even more. OK, that was rough, and you felt for both players, but it wasn’t insurmountable.

Then, out of absolutely nowhere from the outside perspective, the Ime Udoka scandal stunned the basketball world. This was one of those situations where when it happens to another team, you raise your eyebrows at work, text a few friends, think of those affected, do some googling and then move on with your day. You may think about it a few more times, but eventually the next juicy story comes along and it’s brushed aside.

When it happens to the team you follow, it doesn’t sit right. It’s the kind of story that makes you squirm in your chair and cringe. It just doesn’t add up. The guy who led the Celtics to the Finals? Whose stoicism and poise were so obvious in such critical moments? Who had a great chance to win Coach of the Year this season? That Ime Udoka? You talking about the same dude?

Man, what a major, major bummer. Without knowing the full details, it’s still hard to form a true educated and concrete opinion. It’s human nature to question everything and everyone, but you have to trust that what the Celtics did was necessary.

If there was any way to let Udoka stay on board, they would have done so. If they absolutely had to terminate him entirely, they would have done so. They determined that a year-long suspension was necessary, so our job is to support those involved however we can – for starters, by not speculating on the internet – and regroup once the appropriate amount of time has passed.

That’s the players’ job as well, and so far, they’re excelling in that regard. Many teams would crumble in such a volatile situation. If their culture, locker room and chemistry weren’t strong, their season could be over before it began.

The Celtics have given absolutely no indication that this will tarnish their quest for a championship. It sounds like they were truly just as shocked as everyone else, but like the rest of us, all they can do is digest the news, think of those involved, stay composed and move forward.

They handled an appalling situation with commendable grace at Media Day, answering a wide range of questions honestly and candidly. They, too, would like to have more of the facts. They, too, were confused. They, too, know they can’t dwell on it for too long.

“We’re still waiting, just like everybody else,” Marcus Smart said. “As a player, you would like to know, but that’s none of our business, it’s their lives. The people who are involved, it’s between them, and we should respect their privacy.”

Many of the questions at Brad Stevens and Wyc Grousbeck’s press conference centered around the concept of whether this was an isolated incident or part of a systemic problem within the organization. They were all valid questions, and needed to be asked, but there’s no reason to believe this was part of something bigger unless the Celtics give us one.

As they start fresh, with a head coach young enough to be a player, they have the poise and cohesiveness necessary to focus on the task at hand. This will remain a major story regardless, but it only becomes a major distraction during the season if they let it.

They have the collective maturity to compartmentalize what’s happening. It’s a stretch to say it will make them stronger, but it’s not a stretch to say it won’t make them weaker.

Al Horford didn’t come back for another year to watch his best chance at a title slip away again. Jaylen Brown didn’t block out all those trade talks just for the heck of it. Jayson Tatum may not share much, but he’ll let his game do the talking. Marcus Smart’s voice is strong, and he commands respect. Brogdon is about as poised as they come, and he’s already a steadying presence even as a newcomer. This is an experienced team full of savvy and unselfish players, and they understand what’s at stake.

“It’s gonna be something that we have to address as a group,” Brown said. “We’ve started that process.”

Media Day gave a glimpse into what the next nine months could look like. The Celtics were blindsided, but they weren’t defeated. This season will always have a footnote, but it won’t have an asterisk.

They shouldn’t let the reprehensible actions of one employee dictate the entire season, and there’s no reason to believe they will. It’s time for hoops, and they have a chance to be the best team in the NBA. It would be unwise to think they’ll squander that opportunity.

“It’s an unfortunate situation,” Tatum said. “Nobody expected this coming into the season. We were all caught off guard by everything, but we gotta try to move forward and play basketball.”

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