When the Celtics advanced to the NBA Finals in 2022 – and came tantalizingly close to reaching the mountaintop – they consequently put an enormous amount of pressure on themselves for years to come.
Their climb to contenders was indisputable, and it was already abundantly clear they were building something special, but that season provided something tangible. Those within the organization, the fan base and members of the media all collectively realized it was within reach in 2022 and would be again in 2023 and beyond. Everyone decided anything short of a championship would be a disappointment.
At the same time, playing with that insane amount of pressure – some of it self-induced and some from outside forces – has to be extremely mentally taxing. No one knows what’s going on behind closed doors, or in each player’s head, but it really seemed as though the Celtics carried a proverbial cinderblock on their shoulders and couldn’t shake it.
It’s nothing specific anyone said or did, but rather a general feeling and vibe around the organization that wasn’t nearly as present in previous years.
At times in the playoffs last season, they played like a team trying not to lose a championship rather than trying to win it. Late in the Hawks series, in spurts against the 76ers and early in the series plus in Game 7 against the Heat, they looked timid at best and lost at worst.
This year, as they continue the quest for Banner 18, it’s imperative that they avoid falling into the tunnel vision trap. That means approaching each day with the understanding that, yes, a championship is within reach, but no, it’s not necessarily going to happen just because it probably should.
At Kristaps Porzingis’ press conference in July, head coach Joe Mazzulla acknowledged something many have felt from afar.
“I felt like coming into last year, a lot of our motivation was coming off the Finals loss,” Mazzulla said. “ ... Now that we have time, how do we take a step back? ... Develop this year’s culture and competitive nature ... playing together and being the hardest-playing team every night.”
As Hubie Brown would say, “I like that” and “that’s right on the money.” It was a seemingly small comment on a day of many, but it carries some extra weight moving forward. The Celtics need to hit the refresh button, re-establish their defensive identity and collective swagger and remember that anything can happen.
Think of it this way: when you’re dating someone you like and are constantly thinking: “oh, wow. I think this is my future wife; I can’t mess this up,” you’re a lot more likely to mess it up than if you’re thinking: “oh, wow. I really like this girl. Let’s enjoy the ride and see what happens.”
It’s human nature, and is an easy trap to fall into, but it’s best to avoid it whenever possible.
Even though the Celtics will be favorites in basically every game they play, they need to act like they’re the underdogs. Dive on the floor for loose balls, box out, sweat, do all the little things that lead to winning. Do it for Marcus Smart, Grant Williams, Kevin Garnett and even Greg Stiemsma.
If the championship does come, it’ll make it that much sweeter. If not, it’ll make the pain slightly more tolerable and the self-hate slightly less all-encompassing. When we put pressure on ourselves as humans, we tend to crumble. When we stay even keeled, trust our training and preparation and focus on the journey, we tend to rise to the top.
We’ve already seen them rise. It’s been all about 18 for a while. This year, it should be about playing inspired, together basketball and seeing where it takes them.