OAKLAND, Calif. — The Celtics Monday practice at the University of San Francisco was a surreal scene for a team that apparently doesn’t like one another very much.
Let’s make one thing clear: The Celtics players are not beefing. They are just not all that close, and there’s a difference. They don’t dislike one another, but the organization seemed to make the inaccurate assessment that players around the same age with the same personal goals would mesh into a cohesive unit.
And that just hasn’t been the case. The Celtics aren’t 25 players-25 cabs, but they are a team that needs to get closer in the coming weeks to make their expected playoff run.
Jaylen Brown told the Globe that the locker room atmosphere was “toxic,” and that of course made headlines and verified that there are issues among the players.
Monday’s workout didn’t display those issues. The players participated in their customary post-practice 3-pointer contest, with Jayson Tatum being the victor. Somebody on the staff brought a football to practice, and you know what happens when athletes from one sport get a chance to play another.
So everybody at practice was either Randy Moss or Tom Brady as they ran patterns and caught passes. There was actual camaraderie and chemistry. There was laughter, despite seven losses in the past 10 games.
It’s easy to say that winning would make this team closer — as it pretty much does with most teams — and that’s the case here. Players feel better about themselves and the team concept when they’re winning. It gives them a reason to sacrifice.
Brown is an interesting personality, going back to his days at Cal. During his predraft interviews, Brown asked as many questions as he fielded, and he impressed teams with his intelligence. During his rookie season, Brown said he wanted to become part of the NBA Players Association, and less than two years later he’s on the executive committee.
But he’s probably been the most criticized player publicly by his teammates. On multiple instances this season, Marcus Smart and Marcus Morris have chided Brown about a poor shot or not getting back on defense. In a recent game against Toronto, Brown drove vigorously to the basket on a fast break with Smart waiting behind the 3-point line for a pass. Brown, in his stubbornness continued to drive with a three-on-one break and committed a charging foul.
Smart gave him a death stare. Marcus Morris shoved Brown in a huddle during a January game against Miami.
It’s not that his teammates dislike Brown, they want him to (1) be more selfless and (2) play to his immense potential. So in the past few weeks, Brown has put his head down, kept quiet, and played ball. It has led to an impressive stretch.
Kyrie Irving is the central figure behind the team chemistry. He’s the All-Star guard, the franchise cornerstone. He is not mercurial with his teammates. During practice, he openly fraternizes. He jokes with Terry Rozier. He may not consider his teammates his best friends, but he respects their talents.
What was interesting during his eight-minute interview session was that he caught himself calling his teammates, “young guys.” In Cleveland Irving despised it when LeBron James referred to his teammates as “my guys” or Irving as a “little brother.” He considered that demeaning. And eventually he started using the “young guys” moniker as the team began to struggle this season.
“The distractions that come within the team sometimes can get overwhelming,” Irving said Monday. “I’m human, and I just try not to let it seep into my teammates, and that’s the most important thing, set an example for these young guys, and I don’t even want to call them young guys, my teammates. They really have a great passion for the game of basketball, and they’ve shown they can play at a high level on a consistent level.”
It seems his teammates also found that moniker demeaning, and Irving has curtailed the “you guys haven’t been through what I’ve been through” approach. That should help long-term.
But Irving admitted that some of his unhappiness has been caused by speculation about his free-agent status and the chatter about his role in the team’s failure to reach potential. That attitude has appeared to spread to his teammates, where there is a sensitivity around the organization,
Perhaps Monday was a first step in healing tensions and making more of a concerted effort to get closer.
“Being traded last year and coming into this, there’s a lot of new for our team,” Irving said. “We’re still building for something. It gets to that point. I’m normal. [The chatter] makes players very unhappy, I’ll tell you that. I think someone told me Adam Silver was talking the other day about how unhappy NBA players are, especially nowadays, because of the scrutiny, exploitation that we go through of everything being judged or someone being a very high stature and people are still throwing stones at him, just trying to break him. Words are very powerful, and I don’t want to disconnect from any other person that would take anything personally, but I’m still that person as well.”