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CELTIC PRIDE: NEVER FORGET THE IMPORTANCE OF A BRASSY OWNER
Tired of a 13-year title drought, Wyc Grousbeck gambled and let Brad Stevens run the show, a savvy move that led to Ime Udoka’s hiring as coach ... and might produce Boston’s 18th NBA banner
Ownership matters. Damn right it does. A shrewd sports owner can be a panacea for all ills, which shouldn’t be forgotten as you revel in your team’s glory … or mope in its perpetual misery. In Chicago, the Bulls wasted the greatest single resource known to basketball, managing just nine winning seasons in the 24 years since Michael Jordan was chased away by a boss who ached to build his “own dynasty” — and delivered a travesty.
It’s good to know aimless futility droughts aren’t tolerated in a franchise trending as a sustained dynasty, the Boston Celtics. Stuck on 17 championships and demanding more, owners Wyc Grousbeck and Steve Pagliuca made a bold front-office sweep last summer, emphasizing urgency over patience. When the team’s longtime architect, Danny Ainge, chose to flee the pressure of 13 straight seasons without a title, a conventional follow-up would have been the firing of head coach Brad Stevens, whose college-to-NBA fairy tale had stalled.
Instead, the owners were paying enough attention to realize Stevens still had insight as a talent evaluator. Even if he’d failed to extract the full potential of players who’d tuned him out, why couldn’t he hire a coach with the proverbial “new voice” while making deals to freshen Ainge’s promising roster? So Stevens was named president of basketball operations, in a shocker of sorts, and on the day of the announcement, he and Grousbeck stood under the 17 replica banners at the team’s training facility and made a mutual vow.
“We committed to one another that we're going to win banner 18 — or die trying,” said Grousbeck, who has been telling the story all week in San Francisco at the Finals.
Neither man has checked into a hospital. In fact, in a stirring triumph that should be studied by team owners everywhere, the Celtics are three victories from No. 18. It would give them the all-time league lead for most championships, breaking a tie with the rival Los Angeles Lakers, but more importantly, it would exhibit the power and guile of strong leaders atop an organization. Every button pushed by Stevens has turned to gold, whether it was shipping out Kemba Walker to bring back Al Horford or a willingness to relinquish the high draft picks so treasured by Ainge, such as the future No. 1 needed to acquire Derrick White at the trade deadline. But Stevens’ shrewdest decision was the one that, personally, was most difficult. He replaced himself in the coaching seat with Ime Udoka, the anti-Stevens, who commands respect with his transparent, defense-mandatory, rip-you-a-new-one-if-necessary presence.
His candor included an immediate assessment of Stevens’ flaws, which took some serious brass at his introductory press conference. “We want to have a well-rounded team. I looked at the numbers overall — sorry to mention this, Brad, but 27th in assists last year. We want to have more team basketball there,” said Udoka, smiling but meaning it.
If he could be that direct to his boss, imagine the practice sessions. The Celtics have followed his lead, finally pivoting out of tumult in November when Marcus Smart called out Jayson Tatum and Jaylen Brown — a star tandem seemingly headed for a breakup — for not passing the ball enough. Enter Udoka. “I challenged their mental toughness. Some people liked it, and some people didn’t,” he said. Buried in 11th place in the Eastern Conference as the new year began, the Celtics rocketed into the league elite, winning 33 of 43 to conclude the regular season before relieving Kevin Durant and the Brooklyn Nets of their grotesque agony, surviving Giannis Antetokounmpo and defending champion Milwaukee and returning from the dead to beat Jimmy Butler and Miami in the conference finals.
Too much sweat, too many struggles, to think about winning the Finals? All they needed was rest, a chance to breathe a few days, and the Celtics looked even more unbeatable Thursday night in Game 1. In a monumentally dominant fourth quarter, they gave the Golden State Warriors a flashback of what they once looked like, burying nine of 12 shots from the three-point region — most ever in the last quarter of a Finals game — to escape a 12-point hole and quiet the tech bros in Chase Center. Suddenly, the Celtics looked like the new rage. And the Warriors looked staggered and spent, all but forcing them to win Game 2 if they plan on claiming their fourth title in eight years. The operative question all weekend: Why did they allow so many wide-open perimeter looks to Horford, White, Brown, Smart, Payton Pritchard, everyone but the ghost of Larry Bird when everyone knew what Boston has become offensively: a team that shoots almost half its shots from three-point range, 45.5 percent entering the Finals. As usual, Udoka was blunt.
“Every time we got the ball in the middle, they collapsed the paint, and kick-outs were wide open,” he said, not afraid to remind rival Steve Kerr of his team’s weakness. “Guys stepped up and made them. We'll take that all the time. Knowing they're a little smaller, don't have rim protection, they do it as a team, and that's a shot they give up a lot.”
No doubt the Warriors will respect the potential barrages this time. “We are going to play with desperation,” Klay Thompson said, “and I think that’s when we are at our best.” But they also will be picking their poison, as Udoka noted, opening the middle for the rugged likes of Smart and Brown and allowing Tatum to reboot his 3-of-17 shooting mess. In won’t be as simple as Draymond Green thinks. If he spent half as much time preparing for games as he does on his media career, Green might not have been so wretched in the series opener. He admitted to playing poorly, looking nothing like a defensive demon as he fouled out, while missing 10 of 12 shots as a non-weapon ignored by the Celtics. Even so, he found time afterward to chide the winners. Is that the least bit intelligent? Isn’t Green the same volatile saboteur who ultimately cost his team four consecutive titles in the 2016 Finals, when he grabbed LeBron James’ crown jewels and was suspended for Game 5? Draymond thinks he’s a podcaster and future TNT star first these days, and if he wants a strong take, he should look in the mirror and blast himself for talking too much. Kerr won’t do it. Steph Curry won’t do it.
Someone must. Green can’t help himself.
“We'll be fine,” he said, smiling smugly. “We'll figure out the ways we can stop them from getting those 3s and take them away. I don't think it was a rhythm thing. We pretty much dominated the game for the first 41, 42 minutes, so we'll be fine.”
Dominated? Not quite, with the Warriors frittering away Curry’s six first-quarter threes. Then Green picked apart the sharpshooters who picked the Dubs apart. “They hit 21 3s, and Marcus Smart, Al Horford and Derrick White combined for 15,” he said, dismissing their collective torrent as a fluke. “Those guys are good shooters, but they combined for what … 15-for-23? Is my math right? Eight, seven and eight. Eight, seven and eight. Yeah, that's 23, right, 15-for-23 from those guys. Eh. We'll be fine.”
Eh. Maybe not. Doesn’t he realize the Celtics have had little to do in the 69 hours between games but rest up, feel good about themselves and use Green’s insults as further fuel? Not that Udoka ever would let his guys get caught up in nonsense. They’ll be ready. Tatum, his rare scoring struggle notwithstanding, has grown into a complete superstar this season. Brown is the perfect complement now. Smart, he of the green-tinted hair, is the gritty floor leader and the league’s Defensive Player of the Year, an award Green won five long years ago. Question is, will the Warriors be ready to bring their A-game against a coach demanding even more from his team?
Know what Udoka told his players before their historic, 40-16 fourth quarter? “You’re getting punked out there,” he related to Yahoo Sports. “They’re punking us right now. Is this the way you want to go out? This is not us. Let’s at least give ourselves a chance.”
The response is all you need to know about the team’s growth. “He’s taught us things that we could learn and we taught him things,” Smart said of the rookie head coach. “We knew, being his first time, it wasn’t going to be easy. It was going to be hard. That’s just how it is, and that’s just the team we are, and that’s the mentality we picked up from him. When you’ve got a coach like that, it’s kind of hard not to follow.”
Just as fascinating is how the Celtics have been constructed from within, like the Warriors, with Tatum, Brown and Smart among six of eight rotation players drafted by Ainge. The homegrown effect is a refreshing breakthrough in a league where too many superteams have crashed. Just as the Bucks won last year with Antetokounmpo, who elected to sign his supermax contract and stay in a small market, the next champion will be defined by stars who didn’t come from elsewhere. The Warriors might end up rueing the departure of Durant, who helped them to their last two titles, but if they win this time, they can take solace in bookend championships with their own longstanding trio: Curry, Green and Thompson.
In that vein, Grousbeck has wanted what Warriors owner Joe Lacob has. Funny, once upon a time, Lacob needed the Celtics owners for his initial entree into the league. They sold a minority share to the Massachusetts native before Lacob and Peter Guber bought the Warriors in 2010 for $450 million. In the 12 years since, the franchise has boomed in value to more than $5 billion, prompting Lacob to say famously in 2016 that his creation is “light years ahead of probably every other team in structure, in planning, in how we’re going to go about things.” While remaining friendly with Grousbeck and Pagliuca, Lacob dearly wants to beat them and said as much to his players last week.
If he doesn’t know it yet, Mr. Light Years must sense his former partners have caught up to his Bay Area machine. In Boston, you see, the natives won’t let a team stray too long without a championship. “I know it may sound arrogant, but when you play for the Celtics, the expectation is to win a championship,” said Horford. “That’s what it is in the organization. We don’t have to talk about.” Starting on Feb. 3, 2002, when Tom Brady and Bill Belichick won their first of six Super Bowls, the New England sports scene has witnessed 12 title teams, including the Red Sox four times. The Bruins won in 2011. The Celtics, who last won in 2008, have gone the longest without a title — and they’ve won just that one since 1986. Grousbeck, once booed in public settings, chose to fix the problem rather than prolong it.
Win or die. Wouldn’t aggrieved fans, suffering in most North American cities, love to have owners who take oaths in blood?
Jay Mariotti, called “without question the most impacting Chicago sportswriter of the past quarter-century,’’ writes general sports columns for Substack while appearing on some of the 1,678,498 podcasts and shows in production today. He is an accomplished columnist, TV panelist and talk/podcast host. Living in Los Angeles, he gravitated by osmosis to film projects.