Picked-up pieces while remembering a guy bellowing “We love ya, Cooz!” from the Garden’s upper deck 60 years ago Friday …
▪ Brad Stevens sees the same things you see. The Celtics president of basketball operations is ever-careful and diplomatic, but he knows the team isn’t playing great ball the way it was at this time last year. He sees the blown leads, Jayson Tatum’s struggles, the rugged learning curve for Joe Mazzulla, and the reliance on 3-pointers. He knows better than anyone what it’s like to coach today’s fundamentally challenged, social media-driven NBA talents.
The slumping, still-immature Celtics came into the weekend with 12 regular-season games remaining, having dropped 2½ games behind Milwaukee in the quest for the Eastern Conference’s top seed.
“I’m certainly not looking at it as the sky is falling, but we’ve got to clean some things up,” Stevens said after the Celtics’ 2-point win at Minnesota Wednesday. “If you look across the top of the East, we have not played as well out of the break as probably the other top five or six teams. We’re not in the playoffs tomorrow, but we’re not far.”
The Celtics lost five of their first 10 after the All-Star break, blowing huge leads in several games and losing to the abysmal Rockets (15-52) Monday in Houston. They lost a game to Brooklyn at home in which they led by 28 points.
“The Brooklyn game was a bad one, no question about it,” Stevens acknowledged. “There’s a big difference between being up 28 and being up 11 or 13. Those [smaller leads] go pretty quick in this day and age. But when you’re up, you’ve to to play with the exact same urgency that you played with to get up.
“I just don’t think we have been as connected as we were early in the year. You’re going to go through ups and downs throughout the year, but you have to build habits that are going to be sustainable.”
Mazzulla, the 34-year-old rookie coach, was on a pleasure cruise for most of his first four months but lately has been getting the Matt Patricia scrutiny.
“He’s very smart, he’s got a lot of guts, and he’s got all the qualities that a really good coach has,” said Stevens. “He doesn’t shy from the responsibility. Any time I talk to him after a game, he’s always accountable. It’s always, ‘I wish I could have done this and this.’
“Well, you can go through a thousand things in a game that maybe you could have done. But he never starts with anything else, and I think that’s a great place to start.”
Superstar Tatum has slumped since scoring 55 points in his All-Star MVP performance.
“I don’t lose any sleep over Jayson,” said the Celtics boss. “He works. If his shot is not going in, he’ll put in more time to get his feel and his rhythm.
“I’m encouraged by what he did on the glass [vs. Minnesota] in a game in which he didn’t have it offensively. When we’re small, he might be our best defensive rebounder, and he’s certainly one of our best defenders.
“I don’t worry about the 0-for-7 days or the 4-for-17 days. I just think he’ll be fine over the course of time.”
Robert Williams has played only 28 games and is currently on the shelf with a hamstring injury. The Celtics are a different team without him. Does Stevens anticipate having Williams play regularly in the playoffs?
“Once he clears these next couple of hurdles, coming back off this muscle strain, he should be full good to go unless there’s something that we can’t anticipate that happens. He should have a clean bill of health soon.
“I’m encouraged that we’re nearing full health. Obviously we need everybody on the court and everybody firing in one direction. I was encouraged that in Minnesota we won a game where we didn’t shoot well and we won a game on defense.
“Sometimes shooting can mask things you are not doing well, and we saw that at times early in the year, so it’s good when you can go into a place against a good team and guard well enough to win in a game when we didn’t shoot well. That was encouraging after a discouraging loss.
“I hope we can build off that. I hope we use Monday [the loss to Houston] as a launching pad to play better. I wonder if that’s the one that’s going to get us moving in the right direction.”
▪ Quiz: Name two major leaguers who won a regular-season MVP, an All-Star MVP, and a Home Run Derby. Hint: One is a Hall of Famer, the other is active. (Answer below.)
▪ One of my readers has taken to calling Bill Belichick “Chaim Belichick,” and I kind of like it. Chaim Belichick’s roster mismanagement threatens to make New England the Tomato Can of the AFC East.
▪ Let it not be said that Chaim Bloom lacks a sense of humor. When the Sox went undefeated in their first 14 exhibition games, I reminded him that the 2017 Cleveland Browns went 4-0 in their preseason, then 0-16 in the regular season.
One day later, the Sox were defeated by Toronto, and Bloom texted me a GIF showing three people clinking champagne glasses. Accompanying the image, Bloom wrote, “Live shot of 2017 Cleveland Browns.” I asked him if he knew which arm belonged to Mercury Morris.
▪ There’s nothing funny about Mets closer Edwin Diaz getting hurt in Puerto Rico’s celebration after defeating the Dominican Republic in the World Baseball Classic. Diaz tore a patellar tendon and is expected to miss the season. It’s exactly the kind of incident that could kill the joyous event that is the WBC.
▪ Fenway Sports Group goes to great lengths to brag about its partnership with LeBron James, which is always a party-starter for Boston sports fans. Why not go into business with Ulf Samuelsson and Manny Machado?
▪ No Chris Sale for the Red Sox opener. Strange. Is Alex Cora afraid Sale would try too hard and maybe hurt himself throwing a pitch? If Sale stays healthy and contributes in the first half of the season while the Sox sag, will Bloom trade him at the deadline to get out from under the final year of his contract?
▪ Kyle Schwarber homered in the WBC last weekend. He has now homered in the World Series, ALCS, NLCS, ALDS, NLDS, AL Wild Card, NL Wild Card, and WBC. Doubt any other player can make this claim.
▪ Yankees manager Aaron Boone says he’s no longer playing basketball. This is relevant only because in January of 2004, three months after beating the Red Sox with his walkoff shot vs. Tim Wakefield in the ALCS, Boone ruptured his left ACL playing pickup basketball in Newport Beach. The injury forced the Yankees to look for a new third baseman and resulted in New York’s acquisition of Alex Rodriguez.
▪ Triston Casas, the curious and unusual Red Sox rookie slugger, pulled me aside in the spring clubhouse to ask if I covered Jim Rice and what Rice was like as a hitter. It was hard to know where to start, but I made sure the kid knew that Rice had 406 total bases when he was MVP in 1978, and was intentionally walked with the bases loaded that season.
▪ No way Aaron Rodgers should wear Joe Willie Namath’s No. 12 if he joins the Jets.
▪ Read “A Damn Near Perfect Game,” written by former Sox pitcher Joe “Fight Club” Kelly and Rob Bradford. Kelly loves baseball and wants you to love it, too. He interviewed commissioner Rob Manfred for this book. It’s great to see passion for the game from an MLB player. Not as common as you would think.
▪ Too much loss this past week. Baseball lost Jesus Alou and Joe Pepitone. Jesus was one of three ballplaying Alou brothers. On Sept. 15, 1963, Jesus, Felipe, and Matty Alou manned the outfield for the defending NL champion San Francisco Giants. Check out the walk/strikeout ratios of the Alou brothers.
Pepitone, the flamboyant first baseman of the Yankees, died at the age of 82. Pepitone was a Brooklyn native, the first big leaguer to wear a hairpiece, and served time in prison after running afoul of the law in the mid 1980s.
The world of track and field lost Dick Fosbury, the man who reinvented high jumping with his “Fosbury Flop,” winning gold at the 1968 Olympics in Mexico City. Fosbury was first to clear the bar back-first.
▪ Imagine my surprise showing up at a state semifinal boys’ basketball game at Taunton Monday and learning that you can’t buy tickets with cash at the door. It was something you had to do with a credit card on your SmartPhone. Seriously, MIAA? What about folks who don’t have a SmartPhone or a credit card? Here’s hoping that no player’s grandparents got shut out at the door.
▪ The Wall Street Journal unearthed the fact that Oscar nominee Todd Field, the director of “Tár,” helped invent “Big League Chew” — the shredded bubble gum sold in distinctive pouches. Field came up with the idea when he was a teen batboy for the Portland Mavericks, a legendary independent pro team in Oregon.
Alas, the Oscar for best director went to Daniel Kwan and Daniel Scheinert for “Everything Everywhere All At Once,” the most overrated and abysmal Oscar winner in modern history. (A Globe “commenter” said he thought “Everything Everywhere All At Once” was the story of post-retirement David Ortiz.)
▪ If you’re going through a divorce and don’t want to share your personal drama, just say, “As far as marriage goes, let’s just say I’m in the transfer portal.”
▪ Quiz answer: Ken Griffey Jr., Giancarlo Stanton.