It’s funny what hunger will conjure. The NBA is a showcase for players who may have been dismissed on their professional journey and cherish another opportunity to flourish.
The Miami Heat duo of Hassan Whiteside and Tyler Johnson combined for 33 points, 18 rebounds, and 5 blocked shots in Sunday’s 83-75 win over the Celtics in front of 17,366 at TD Garden. Both players were considered afterthoughts or not considered at all when teams were nabbing players to fill training camp rosters.
But their sojourns through the NBADL and lower-level teams overseas, and their sweating through 10-day contracts have made them hungry, and their hunger was evident on Sunday. Meanwhile, the Celtics resembled a team still satisfied after their recent 3-3 road trip.
The Celtics played with no hunger and little passion. They again started slowly, falling behind by 15 points in the first half while shooting 31.7 percent and missing 9 of 10 3-pointers.
For some reason, this collection of rookies, and veterans with agendas, aren’t playing with energy or motivation. They relax in the first quarter, sort of ease themselves into games. And on Sunday, the Celtics found themselves trailing, 25-15, after the opening period.
It’s not a lack of talent, because when the second half kicked off, suddenly the Celtics mentally checked in and played stellar defense, outscoring the Heat, 28-17, and forcing seven turnovers in the third quarter. And then the Celtics became content again, and Whiteside and Johnson — not Chris Bosh and Dwyane Wade or Luol Deng and Mario Chalmers — restored order with 14 points and seven rebounds in the fourth quarter.
Desire is a powerful tool, and it was apparent that Whiteside and Johnson aren’t eager to go back from where they came.
“Just playing hard, that’s all I can do,” said Johnson after his second NBA game. “I’m a rookie, I can’t come in there and expect to do things that I was able to do in the D-League . . . because we have guys who are able to score, so my job is just to come in and play as hard as I can. There were a couple people out with injuries so coach [Erik Spoelstra] just told everybody to stay ready, and that’s what I did.”
The Celtics should be playing with that type of passion on a more consistent basis. They also have young players looking to prove themselves. They have players who don’t want to regress, who want more playing time. But they sometimes appear content, and at 16-30, that can’t happen.
Celtics coach Brad Stevens doesn’t understand the lackadaisical play, and the motivation can’t always come from him. He was upset at halftime, after the Celtics had offended the home crowd with 31 points and seven turnovers, and chided his players. It’s a source of frustration because Stevens sees better for his team than it probably sees for itself.
“I didn’t see it at all on the West Coast trip, even in Minnesota when we lost that game, we started off the game playing really hard defensively. We were really active, loud, communicating,” he said. “But we need to do it better. Again, it’s not just starting games. We need to play better at the start of the fourth quarter. We need to play better in the middle of the second. We just need to be better all the way throughout the game. I don’t know that there’s a clear-cut answer from a starting lineup standpoint. We’ve talked about that.”
Stevens made one significant move in Sunday’s game, inserting Marcus Smart to begin the second half in place of Evan Turner, who had missed all six of his shots in the first 24 minutes. Smart provided energy, but he can’t do it alone. The Celtics need to get hungry again, and perhaps watching Whiteside hit countless midrange jumpers without much resistance or Johnson darting though the lane for acrobatic layups will serve as incentive to focus from the opening tip.
“We were lacking in the first half,” said Smart. “This is very disappointing. As Coach keeps saying, we have no more mulligans. We can’t afford those deficits, 13, 14, 15 points in the first half, and dig ourselves out of that type of hole to come back in the second half. We’re just not waking up on both ends at the beginning of the game, and that’s a problem.”
The NBA is filled with gifted players, and on many occasions the difference between those who thrive and those who don’t is dedication to playing hard every minute. That’s why so many players from the NBADL have been recalled and found success. They simply play harder than the opponents who have never had “nonguaranteed” attached to their contracts.
Stevens can deny playing time and scream PG-13 disparaging words at halftime, but it’s up to the players to decide they no longer want to be embarrassed by those who seem to want it more.
Whiteside and Johnson wanted it more, and that was the most disappointing aspect of Sunday’s result.