After lukewarm start, Celtics don’t seem to be taking any heat
The Celtics live a charmed life around here. Seldom is heard a discouraging word. It is as if the Auerbach-Russell-Havlicek-Bird decades pooled a reservoir of goodwill that quenches the thirst of fans and media tough guys deep into a new century.
The Celtics operate with relative immunity from the everyday noise and negativity that touches our other three successful franchises. Think about it: Nobody ever makes fun of the Celtics owners. Nobody calls them cheap or complains about ticket prices. Basketball boss Danny Ainge is praised nonstop for his vision and brilliance, and coach Brad Stevens is universally hailed as a homespun Hoosier successor to John Wooden or even Red himself.
Meanwhile, the Patriots are held to an impossibly high standard, the Red Sox are questioned by a region of baseball know-it-alls, and proud hockey krishnas are ever-ready to carry pitchforks to Causeway Street if things are not swell with the Bruins.
But it’s always boola boola for the Green Team.
Which brings us to a surprisingly rough patch for the prematurely anointed 2019 NBA Eastern Conference champs.
Last spring’s playoff run to Game 7 of the conference finals without Kyrie Irving and Gordon Hayward — coupled with the subtraction of LeBron James from the East — made the Celtics unanimous picks to advance to the NBA Finals. It was like picking the Patriots to win the AFC East. Everybody did it.
We never allowed that the Toronto Raptors might be pretty good with the addition of Kawhi Leonard. We dismissed the Bucks and the Greek Freek. We mocked the Process-driven Sixers, a dysfunctional bunch easily erased by the Celtics last spring.
All this evidently got into the heads of the Celtics players, and they arrived at practice Tuesday facing hard questions in the wake of a 1-4 road trip that plopped them into third place in their division and a fifth seed in the conference.
“You could [attribute] it to a lot of things,’’ said Jaylen Brown, who is shooting only 36 percent from the floor. “Lack of effort, a lack of assertiveness. We’re waiting around, waiting for someone else to do it instead of doing it ourselves. I don’t think it is there’s too much frustration.
“I have unwavering faith. I think what’s on the other end of this is going to be pretty good.’’
Stevens said: “It’s good to have a practice day. It’s good to be back in Boston. We have a lot of things we need to work on. Today is a back-to-the-basics day. That’s always a good thing to do.
“We’ve got three games in four days starting tomorrow. We’ll get the cobwebs of the long trip out, get some work in, and be ready to go.’’
The coach said he might tweak his lineup a bit, but did not show his hand, saying only “maybe find some groups that play better together.’’
The Celtics have been falling behind by 20 points, then rallying and falling short.
“When we play really urgent and desperate, we’re pretty good,’’ Stevens said. “We’re just not there enough.’’
Why isn’t it there all the time?
“One of the things we all have to make sure we do is remember how hard it is to win, right?’’ Stevens said. “As a coach, your job is making sure that everybody is accountable for all those controllables, and I would say that I need to be better. We all play a role in it, but that’s my job.’’
Does he think his players have gotten caught up in all the outside praise they’ve gotten?
“Certainly it hasn’t been an obstacle as far as us getting ready to play the season,’’ he answered. “I think certainly the changing of roles and ultimately just our accountability across the board needs to be a little better. That starts with me and I’ve got to do a better job and I will.’’
They’d better get started. While the Celtics were stumbling at points west, the Sixers picked up a legitimate game-changing superstar in Jimmy Butler and changed the power rankings of NBA East.
Butler can be something of a bowser, but his skills make the Sixers a match for anyone in terms of top-tier talent. They will be a handful to coach, but Philadelphia will have three of the four best players on the floor in most of the games they play the rest of the season.
The Celtics and Sixers will meet on Christmas Day at the Garden, part of the NBA’s holiday showcase.
In the meantime, the Celtics are back home, and nobody is particularly worried. They are, after all, the Celtics. The Hakuna Matata Five. Everything is always awesome.