CHARLOTTE, N.C. — While the Celtics didn’t make any moves before the trade deadline — and their four competitors in the Eastern Conference did — the TNT “Inside the NBA” analysts believe Boston still can reach the NBA Finals.
But it won’t be nearly as easy as anticipated in October.
Shaquille O’Neal, Charles Barkley and Kenny Smith gave their thoughts on the Celtics, who are tied with the Philadelphia 76ers for fourth in the East, trailing the Indiana Pacers, Toronto Raptors and first-place Milwaukee Bucks.
The Celtics’ chemistry has been questioned since a pair of painful losses to the Los Angeles Lakers and Los Angeles Clippers prompted forward Marcus Morris to tell the media that playing with the team hasn’t been “fun for a while.” That was before the club beat the 76ers and the Pistons to end the unofficial first half of the season.
“I always tell people chemistry is important but not really,’’ said O’Neal. “Respect is more important. All that liking and going out to dinner doesn’t matter. You just have to respect one another. We never had chemistry issues, it was just a difference of opinion.”
O’Neal was involved in one of the most infamous love-hate relationships in NBA history with Kobe Bryant. The two were not close off the floor and sometimes argued on it but made perhaps the most formidable 1-2, guard-center combination of all time. O’Neal said teams such as the Celtics just have to figure out roles. Being close is not necessary.
“They just need to have a conversation because you have to win by committee,” O’Neal said. “My first five years I tried to do everything by myself and I couldn’t. And then I tried to do everything with Penny [Hardaway] and we couldn’t, so we had to bring pieces in. The coach has a game plan and you follow that. What I love about Golden State, Steph Curry could shoot every time but he kicks it to his friend Klay [Thompson]. If Klay is hot, [he’s going] to win, six, seven times in a row. That’s why they always win because they do it by committee. You don’t hear about Steve Kerr’s team having chemistry issues.”
Barkley said he wasn’t as enthralled with the Celtics since they did not make a move before the trade deadline and the other four clubs did. Indiana picked up Wesley Matthews. Philadelphia added Tobias Harris and Mike Scott. Toronto traded for Marc Gasol and Milwaukee added sharpshooter Nikola Mirotic.
Still, Barkley said the Celtics have the talent to win the East.
“Those top four teams in the East are loaded now,” he said. “They asked me if I could pick a team in the East right now and that’s a hard one. I think there’s four teams that could win the East and I wouldn’t be shocked [if any of the four won]. I like Philly, I love what [general manager] Elton Brand did last week. But hey man, that boy in Milwaukee [Giannis Antetokounmpo, he is balling right now and him getting Mirotic, that’s a great pickup. Kawhi [Leonard] and Toronto and going out and getting Gasol. The Celtics, they got  games to get it together. I don’t know who’s going to win the East, I ain’t going to lie.
“I give all those teams credit for making a great move at the trade deadline. They all got better. Except Boston, they didn’t do anything.”
Smith often tells the story of how he played for Bill Russell during his rookie year in Sacramento and Russell would tell the young Smith to sit next to him on buses so he wouldn’t be poisoned by the veterans who were accustomed to losing. Smith eventually won two NBA titles with the Houston Rockets.
Smith said it’s up to Celtics coach Brad Stevens to not only handle game strategy and lineups but to gauge the personalities and try to foster better team chemistry.
“I played with some volatile personalities and won championships,” he said. “There’s no great player that would not attribute it to great coaching. It’s important to understand how to read all of that . . . You have to be circular to understand it and that’s important. You have to be a recruiter. You have to understand all of that.”
What makes the situation more difficult in Boston is that players such as Terry Rozier, Jaylen Brown and Jayson Tatum were integral parts of the Celtics’ run to the Eastern Conference finals last season, so they have enjoyed their share of success. Now they’ve been asked to sacrifice their games for the sake of accommodating Kyrie Irving and Gordon Hayward.
“Those guys went to the Eastern Conference finals without Kyrie and Hayward,” Smith said. “So they’ve had success. When you’re in Game 7s and Games 6s to close out, that doesn’t leave [you]. When Sam Cassell got it the first year with us, it didn’t leave him when we were trying to go back to back, he was more ready for it. So those guys are ready, it’s just being able to keep your antennas up if you’re Brad Stevens. Because he got them there without his best two players.”