Offensive linemen; the big, fat, oft-bearded gents who weigh 300+ pounds, lift absurd amounts of weight, get no credit for a win, and only earn notice when a quarterback gets sacked or a running back gets dropped for a loss. Offensive linemen; the giant galoots who we cannot properly quantify with stats, who spend all game throwing their bodies around in hopes their teammates will score a few touchdowns, who will never know what sports glory feels like no matter how great they become. Offensive linemen; the players who may not be able to walk five years after retirement, who are willing to risk their bodies despite knowing they’ll never become stars.
Being on the Celtics, said Ray Allen, is like “being on a football team, being a lineman, one of the workhorses.” That’s not to say Allen’s going to start running around the court looking to register his next “pancake” (though he probably would have enjoyed it last night, after being elbowed on a couple different occasions). He’s not going to eat Chipotle eight times a day and gain 100 pounds so he can protect Tom Brady’s blind side next season. He’s not going to start crouching in a three-point stance and hurling the ball backwards through his legs. He’s not going to start wearing a helmet, though his bandage last night was almost as large.
But Ray Allen and his teammates understand a real contender shares only one goal. Just like offensive linemen, the Celtics care less about stats or glory. One thing matters, and that’s winning. That sounds cliche to say, of course. But from day one, the Celtics have been completely committed to the cause. The Big Three each allowed their shot attempts to go down and their roles to slightly diminish. Meanwhile, they (excepting KG, who always committed to defense) took on greater defensive responsibilities and began to play thoroughly unselfish ball. In a way, the three stars became role players in their own right. No longer did they need to dominate games, or to dominate the ball. Allen became the shooter, Paul Pierce the inside/outside wing scorer, Kevin Garnett the low-post presence and pick-and-pop threat, and everyone else fell into place.
I spend a lot of time wondering why I’m so damn proud of this particular Celtics squad. Part of it might be the teams I’m comparing these Celtics to: the Rick Pitino teams, the “Antoine Walker jacking 35 threes per game” teams, the Marty Conlon teams, and the Gerald Green/Sebastian Telfair/Michael Olowokandi teams. But when compared to contemporaries, to other teams who have thrown three stars together overnight, the Celtics look just as sunny. The Knicks are lost. The Heat have struggled to set aside egos for the team’s good. Both teams try, but it’s obvious a power struggle still exists. Carmelo Anthony and Amare Stoudemire (and Lebron James, Dwyane Wade and Chris Bosh) are not yet at the point where statistics and individual accolades mean nothing. They aren’t yet at the point where they can score eight or 10 points and be happy. They aren’t yet at the point where winning means, quite literally, everything.
That’s not to say the Celtics always win, nor do they always try their hardest to win. I think that’s why I wonder about how proud I am—how can I maintain such pride in a team that spent three-quarters of last season dogging it? A team that often takes sub-.500 teams lightly, like those games are exhibitions? A team that sometimes seems to look at the regular season like a 10th-grade jock looks at chemistry class? A team capable of waltzing into Phoenix and getting pushed around by Marcin Gortat, to the tune of 19 points and 17 rebounds? A team that can lose to any team on any given night, and look like a high school JV team in the process? How do I still have so much pride in this team, when they no longer play every game like it’s their last, like they did in 2007-’08? When there are certain nights when it looks like they could care less?
Because there are no hidden agendas. Not in Boston. No players gun for stats, save Rajon Rondo, who occasionally passes up layups for asssists. Even when Rondo does that, he’s selfishly playing unselfishly (or unselfishly playing selfishly, if either of those sayings even make sense), so he doesn’t bother me like he would if he were shooting every time. I’m rambling now, I know, but the Celtics have given themselves fully to winning. Even in the worst of times, the Celtics never revert to “fuck it, I’m going to get mine” mode. Even in the worst of times, they could care less about individual glory.
When Stephon Marbury signed in Boston, fans feared he might ruin the chemistry. But he quickly became like the rest of the Celtics—just a cog in the system. Some cogs are more important, like Rondo and the Big Three. Others are less important, like Marbury and Sasha Pavlovic. But even Marbury, a man who eats vaseline and probably still believes he’s the world’s greatest point guard, was willing to play a bit role without causing issues. There’s a mentality in Boston, led by Doc Rivers, Kevin Garnett and “ubuntu,” which breeds winning and subservient attitudes.
Shaq came to Boston with an ego as large as the state of Texas; he’s been a perfect fit, if you don’t count his injured body. Von Wafer came to Boston with a bad reputation; after an early-season fight with Delonte West, he’s been an exemplary teammate. West came to Boston as a big question mark; his teammates and coaches all glow about him, and call him their brother. Jeff Green was traded to Boston; he was always seen as a good locker room guy, but he had to accept a much smaller role—he did so instantly. Nenad Krstic was traded to Boston; within days, even after playing some of his best basketball in years, Krstic said Shaq deserved to start when he returned from injury. Players come to Boston, and they become part of a machine. Nobody cares about stats. Nobody complains about his role. Nobody bitches about minutes. Doc Rivers puts five players on the floor, and they play selfless basketball while the other players cheer from the bench. Even when they lose. It’s that easy.
So why am I so proud to follow this Celtics team every day, even when they fall to mediocre (or worse) teams far too often? Because the players are like offensive linemen.