(Editor’s note: I wrote a column Sunday for the Springfield Republican about Boston’s growing cohesion and reliable pieces. The column below expands on the same topic.)
Doc Rivers made it a point before Sunday’s game to acknowledge without solicitation that Kevin Garnett enjoys this current Boston Celtics team. That may not sound like much, but keep in mind that Garnett’s stamp of approval has little do with talent or skill. His affection means simply that this Celtics team does not care about individual accolades or glory, that this Celtics team lists goals and accomplishments as its sole priority and could care less who gets the shine so long as each player does his specific part in helping Boston achieve victory.
“Honestly, I think he loves the team. He does. He loves his teammates. They have a lot of fun together, this is a good group and that makes you want to play more,” Rivers said. “He loves every team, but locker rooms grow together, and they get better. And when you have good energy in it, guys play better. I think that’s with every team and I think that’s in our case too.”
In Garnett’s case, having fun with his teammates is not in itself reason enough to love them. The future Hall of Famer has earned a reputation over his 17-year career as someone almost obsessed with winning, who throws elbows in pickup games and occasionally cries during interviews after his team underachieves. He would not thoroughly enjoy his teammates just because they are a good time at the club, or because they crack funny jokes while watching re-runs of the Jersey Shore. Garnett’s primary interest is winning basketball games, and he is so content this season because he feels he is surrounded by a group of like-minded individuals.
The 17-year veteran attempted Sunday to describe what has fueled the Celtics’ five-game winning streak.
“It’s because we’re a great team. Our positions and personnel, it’s all about the system. You know your role in the system, you do what you’re told in the role, carry out your role 100 percent wholeheartedly and that’s your contribution to the team,” he said, adding, “Doc’s system is a very solidified system. It’s not really complicated, but it definitely calls for you to give everything you have. And from that standpoint, if you’re a hard worker, a player that loves to work hard and play hard, then you can fit in the system. Otherwise, you won’t make it.”
The Celtics have experimented in the past with talented peripheral pieces who couldn’t accept their positions in Rivers’ system. Nate Robinson, Stephon Marbury, even to an extent Glen Davis — Danny Ainge has spent the past few years attempting to surround the Big Three with the right supporting cast, but several times has acquired players who did not mesh with Boston’s intentions.
This year, Ainge learned from his lessons. For the first time since James Posey, Eddie House, Leon Powe and a young, ego-less Glen Davis thanklessly contributed whatever they could off Boston’s bench, the Celtics have a second unit that can be relied upon consistently and collectively. Even when Keyon Dooling, Greg Stiemsma, Sasha Pavlovic and whoever else comes off Boston’s bench have an off night, they provide solid defensive contributions and never stray from their roles. This season, none of Boston’s reserves are liable to pull up for an ill-advised three-pointer, catapult into the lane one-on-three or complain about not starting.
“We know we have the big stars to lead us, and they just need guys to fill in the cracks. We’ve counted on that all season, and we knew coming into this situation that those guys are going to take us where we want to go and they’re going to open stuff up for us too. So as long as we come in and do our jobs well, those guys are going to flourish even more,” explained Stiemsma.
Added Ryan Hollins, who came to Boston last week after a year and a half with the Cleveland Cavaliers, “You get that with a veteran team, a more established team. Those roles get cut out and veterans that come in and have been doing the same thing — KG, 17 years in the game, Paul and those guys, 13-plus years — they make it easy for the young guys to fall into that format.”
Unlike Davis, who complained regularly about his changing role during his tenure in Boston, Boston’s bench players now realize that roles themselves are fluid yet the way one fills them should not be. Stiemsma started the season without a guarantee of minutes on a nightly basis, but was still ready whenever Rivers called his name. Now, Stiemsma is the team’s primary backup center but still manages to stay within himself at all times — he contests shots, does his best on the boards and lets fly an occasional mid-range jumper, stressing his strengths while bypassing his weaknesses.
Bradley’s role has similarly grown recently due to multiple injuries, but the second-year combo guard likewise has failed to forget his place in the team’s hierarchy — one of the more impressive aspects of his increased role has been that everything Bradley accomplishes has still come within the flow. He cuts back door for easy layups, shoots jumpers when he’s wide open, occasionally makes plays off the dribble when he feels an advantage, and hounds whoever wears a wrong-colored jersey. In other words, he is succeeding as a starter the same way he became valuable as a sub.
“I’m a team player, so I would play the four if my team needs me to. I’m willing to do whatever my team needs, whether that’s start, come off the bench, whatever. I’m just always going to be prepared and go out there and play hard,” Bradley explained. When asked whether his teammates all share the same mentality, the 21-year old defensive phenom responded, “Definitely, and that’s why we’re such a team.”
Boston’s core has always been willing to sacrifice, has always been about winning above all else. What we are seeing in the past month or two is what happens when the rest of the roster shares a similar vision.
Owner Steve Pagliuca told ESPN’s Peter May, “This is probably the most positive group of guys we’ve had here in 10 years. They’re tight. They care about each other.”
Garnett, Rajon Rondo and Paul Pierce have all been brilliant recently, which has certainly spurred the Celtics’ recent success. But during the current streak, which has come with three Celtics already lost for the season, another (Mickael Pietrus) potentially joining them, and while the Celtics trudge on without their top two shooting guards and top two centers, Boston has become a team that uses contributions from everywhere.
That’s what makes Garnett cherish this group, what gives him such an admiration for the players with whom he shares a locker room. Very little stands above winning on Garnett’s list of priorities, and like it did in 2008, his team again mirrors that mentality.
“This season’s been in disarray and it’s obviously not one that we love,” Garnett said. “But we’ve acclimated to it. We’ve made adjustments to it. We’re taking it one game at a time and we’re playing hard as hell. We’re all joined as one, and we’re picking each other up where others lack.”