Danny Ainge had two primary goals this summer: Maintain cap space for the summer of 2012 and rid Boston’s bench of character-lacking creatures who supposedly infested the team’s culture last season.
Gone went Delonte West, who was never really pursued by the Celtics before he signed in Dallas. Gone went Glen Davis, whose reliable complaints about his role, not to mention the inconsistent nature of his play, grew old. Gone went Von Wafer, included in the Davis-for-Brandon Bass swap. (“I don’t want him, you can have him.”) And everyone the Celtics acquired came with a reputation as clean as Tim Tebow’s criminal record.
I’m not sure Mickael Pietrus calling out his teammates is exactly what Ainge had in mind while building such a saintly bench, but it’s a side effect of gutting Boston’s second unit of players who think with their rear ends rather than their minds. Pietrus plays hard, takes pride in doing what it takes to win and has made his rounds around the league, so his voice carries weight even among the Hall of Famers in Boston’s locker room.
When the Celtics took the wrong side of a bludgeoning in Toronto on Feb. 10, Pietrus unleashed a diatribe the likes of which are normally spoken only by the team’s captains. (Boston Herald — read the entire piece. Now.)
The players, emotionally slammed by a 22-point loss to an injury-depleted Raptors team (Celtics Town editor’s note: it was actually a 12-point loss), sat along the benches in the square locker room and listened, not to one of their established leaders, but to a fresh voice. Newcomer Mickael Pietrus was speaking. He was direct and, true to his nature, emotional.
Pietrus singled out teammates by name. He was careful to be respectful, but he was also critical. As the new guy he undoubtedly raised a few eyebrows, but that didn’t stop Pietrus from standing up in a room that is ruled and policed by the most veteran group of future Hall of Famers in the NBA.
Nor did the Celtics swingman stop there. He has reportedly spoken out several times since the Toronto game.
Imagine if Wafer had tried a similar post-game speech:
“Shut the f*** up, Von. Remember the time you celebrated a missed dunk?”
“Can’t hear you through the tears, dude.”
Or Nate Robinson:
But Pietrus’ voice was different. It was strengthened by his actions, which are purely team-oriented, even when he occasionally shoots ill-advised threes. He came to Boston not because he sought a larger role, but because he fell in love with the history of the franchise, the titles and Bill Russell and Larry Bird and all the fans that kept coming to games, kept watching on television, even when Paul Pierce, the team’s only star, was surrounded by Allan Ray, Gerald Green and Sebastian Telfair. Winning wasn’t necessarily Pietrus’ only goal when he chose to come to Boston rather than listen to overtures from other teams. Though he certainly aspires to corral championships, one gets the feeling that Pietrus really desires to leave some sort of lasting imprint on the NBA’s most successful franchise.
“I’ve been a fan of this franchise since Paul Pierce was by himself,” Pietrus said. “I know that was a rough period, but I always liked that team. It was because of Paul Pierce and the history of the team — Bill Russell, who has more rings than he’s got fingers. I like that. It’s part of a winning franchise. It’s part of history. It means a lot to wear green every night, and to play hard to try and get something done.
“I don’t want to just make me and my family happy. I want to make those 20,000 people and everyone on the team happy, including (team president) Danny Ainge and people like that. I didn’t know Larry Bird, all of those guys who made Celtics history.
“I moved to Paris, and then I got drafted by the Warriors (the No. 11 overall pick by Golden State in 2003). I heard about Paul Pierce. I fell in love with that green jersey, but I could never say that because I could never disrespect my team like that. I told myself I wanted to play for the Celtics one day. I never told anybody that, but that’s how I felt. To be honest, I just love the Celtics. I just love this franchise. To play with KG and play with coach, it’s a blessing and I don’t take it for granted. I would love to be a Celtic for many years.
“To be honest, I want to stay here, because they are great guys and that’s a great franchise.”
Pure motives make advice more valuable. Davis clearly yearned for a larger role and a bigger payday, even if it meant leaving the Celtics. That isn’t necessarily bad considering that it’s his career, but his mentality wasn’t conducive to his becoming a locker room leader. Yet Pietrus is different. He hasn’t accomplished nearly as much as any of the Big Three, but he speaks in their tongue. He’s okay with coming off the bench if that’s what Doc Rivers needs him to do. He learned the plays before several of his teammates who had been in Boston weeks longer. He guards the opposing team’s best wing, shoots jumpers when he’s open (or when he considers himself open) and never complains about what the team asks him to do.
So when he spoke in Toronto, Hall of Famers listened.
“He’ll speak his mind, and I encourage that,” Rivers said. “I don’t ever ask anybody. Guys just do it, and when they do, I tell them to speak their mind, even if it’s good or bad — speak your mind. I think our guys are pretty good at listening to everybody. On any team it’s easy to listen to a guy who plays hard. It’s very hard to listen to guys when they don’t. So he’s very easy to listen to.
“He is who he is and that’s good for us. He plays hard, knows who he is and we allow him to be that. It’s been easy for him.”
“You don’t want someone yelling and screaming all of the time,” Ray Allen said. “But when you hear someone you’re not used to, you think, wow, we have to straighten out. We’re messing up right now.”
Boston’s bench isn’t perfect. There isn’t a single shot creator in the bunch. Greg Stiemsma has become the team’s lone backup center; really, considering that Kevin Garnett is out of position in the middle, Stiemsma is the team’s only center, period. Keyon Dooling has contributed little, if anything, the entire season. Avery Bradley and Sasha Pavlovic could barely crack double digits if left along in a gym for seven hours. JaJuan Johnson and E’Twaun Moore have been, as expected, slow to earn Rivers’ favor. Pietrus has nights where he cannot miss (think about his performance in Golden St.), but he also suffers through prolonged stretches of bricks. Brandon Bass has been forced into the starting lineup and it doesn’t seem like he’ll ever return.
Yet Ainge accomplished his goal. He purged the Celtics of malcontents and troubled souls in favor of assembling a second unit filled with smiles and floor burns. Every once in a while, that results in horrendous stretches of basketball when Boston’s backups do not even seem to see the hoop, never mind demonstrate the capability of tossing a ball through it. Other times, Ainge’s vision seems masterful, and a new-coming Frenchman speaks up to rally his more accomplished teammates after a humiliating loss, taking on a leadership role none of Boston’s reserves could have seized last season.
I love that Pietrus can command such respect in the locker room and speaks from the heart. Yet perhaps his motivational techniques need polishing. After his pep talk in Toronto, the Celtics lost five of their next six.