For the Boston Celtics, the talent is clear. Off the back of a trip to the NBA Finals, they secured the second seed in the Eastern Conference despite having to change coaches shortly before training camp. Now, they’re tied 2-2 in the second round of the postseason.
Jayson Tatum was a top-four MVP candidate, Jaylen Brown is high on the list of All-NBA candidates, Marcus Smart won this year’s NBA Hustle Award, and Malcolm Brogdon took home Sixth Man of the Year.
But their leadership has been constantly questioned.
Tatum and Brown are deep into their NBA careers, but they’re still 25 and 26, respectively. Al Horford and Marcus Smart are the team’s veterans, but it’s often on the stars to lead.
Boston media has criticized the team’s internal leadership at every turn. With each late-game blunder, failure to execute in the clutch, and blown lead, the topic is brought up — is this Celtics team mentally ready to win a title?
Well, if you ask those on the outside, the answer might be no. But everything coming out of Boston’s locker room exudes confidence.
Last season, their leadership was made public. From then-coach Ime Udoka challenging his players publicly to Smart calling out Tatum and Brown for not passing during a post-game press conference, they aired things out for everyone to hear.
So far this year, that mentality seems to have shifted. Players have taken accountability for themselves and there’s less finger-pointing. But just because the fans haven’t heard about it doesn’t mean the Celtics aren’t keeping themselves in check.
Even before the season began, the Celtics stars were stepping up.
“He does a lot of talking, pulling guys aside, seeing how we can get the best look and whatever it might be,” Derrick White said of Jayson Tatum this past offseason. “So [you] definitely see that maturity and the growth that he’s doing.”
Tatum’s quiet nature often leads to him being the subject of criticism. Most leaders are vocal in their style, but that’s not how he rolls. “For the guys in that locker room, when we’re in practice or on the plane or on the court, my presence is felt in my voice,” Tatum said before the year began.
Brown has taken on similar challenges. Tatum may not be the most hands-on, outspoken leader, but Brown makes up for that with his intensity.
“He came to me after the OKC game and just gave me words of encouragement,” Smart said of Brown after Boston’s blowout loss to the Oklahoma City Thunder on January 3.
“He knew I was down; he knew things weren’t going my way and he just kept talking to me. He came out and said, ‘Listen, this is how I want to start. I’m going to pick up Luka early. I’m going to get the energy going, so you can get going.’”
Throughout the season, Boston’s leadership styles have come together to build them up. The public may not be aware of it at every turn, but the Celtics have been building each other up.
As the postseason roars on and the Celtics face new challenges, their behind-the-scenes mentality will be tested.
In Game 4 against the Philadelphia 76ers, they came out flat. The offense failed to get going, and James Harden embarked on a stellar performance similar to his Game 1 masterclass.
However, they stormed back. An impressive fourth quarter showing had the Celtics in a position to win the game, but they came up just short and, in overtime, failed to execute on the final two plays.
And while it’s easy to dwell on mistakes, the Celtics must focus on what’s in front of them. In tandem with that, they need to find the best way to respond.
For Smart, that was backing up his teammate, who made what looked to be the most high-profile mistake of the game.
On Philadelphia’s final offensive possession, Joel Embiid got the ball in the post and went to work on Tatum. Brown double-teamed Embiid, leaving Harden open in the corner. He nailed what would be the game-winning three.
However, Smart showed nothing but support for Brown post-game.
“JB made a read,” Smart said. “They made a better read. And that’s just all it is. I’m always living with JB making a read [on] what he feels comfortable with in his gut. He’s been doing great all series.”
But while Smart was busy having his teammate’s back, Brown was ready to take full responsibility.
“Just a bad read,” Brown said. “It’s a gamble at the wrong time. Big shot by James Harden, but that’s my fault. I take full accountability. Just a bad read.”
As for Horford, he’s not worried about Game 4. He accepted the mistakes, accepted the loss, and is ready for Tuesday night.
“I know that everybody is feeling down. We lost the game. But I’m pretty encouraged by our group,” Horford said. “I saw some growth by our group. Things that we haven’t been able to do all year. [To] be able to do them tonight, on this type of stage, I’m very encouraged.”
Meanwhile, Tatum took on a similar mindset—acknowledging the loss but preparing for the future.
“We still lost,” Tatum said when asked if he was encouraged. “Some things that we did well, some things we can do better, and just get ready for the next one.”
Leadership takes many forms.
It’s not always calling out teammates, criticizing players in the public eye, and screaming at one another on the court. Different styles work for different teams.
All season long, the Celtics have chosen to remain level-headed in the face of victory and defeat. They’ll admit their mistakes but refuse to let the losses bog them down.
Whether it’s Tatum’s quiet oversight, Brown’s constant energy, Smart’s support, or Horford’s veteran perspective, the Celtics have leaders. And internally, they’re working hard to push themselves forward.