There’s been so much upheaval surrounding the start of this Boston basketball season, yet one thing hasn’t changed.
The Celtics are still atop nearly every oddsmaker’s list to win the NBA championship.
The shocking season-long suspension of coach Ime Udoka, the subsequent elevation of little-known former assistant Joe Mazzulla to take Udoka’s place, the late knee surgery that will delay the return of Robert Williams, or the knee injury to new addition Danilo Gallinari that cancels his debut, not to mention the presence of the defending champion Warriors — none of it enough to dim the belief in a Celtics squad that came within two wins of the title last season.
Jayson Tatum, Jaylen Brown, and Co. have officially gone from being the hunter to being the hunted. But as they got back to work this past week, that status was easy to overlook amid the emotional turmoil wrought by Udoka’s wrongdoing. Credit to the players, though, who amid the dissection of their personal feelings about Udoka’s unexpected exit, also spoke to the need for focus in starting all over again.
It’s like they know: The sports world is littered with teams that got oh-so-close to a title one season and fully expected to take the final step the following season, only to disappear in a haze of failed expectations and futile disappointment. The trick is being able to commit to going back to the starting line, to letting go of the idea that you get to pick up where you left off, to understand that prior success is no guarantee of future repeat success.
Or as Brown put it last week, “To think we’re just going to coast off of last year, it’s not going to work like that.”
The sentiment was echoed by Tatum. If those two leaders can successfully push the reset button — and who knows, maybe that’s a little easier to do amid all the uncertainty — the rest of the Celtics should follow.
“What happened last year happened last year. We can’t change it,” Tatum said. “We’ve just got to get ready for this year and start from scratch. Everyone is 0-0 and everyone has the same goal, trying to win a championship.”
It’s a lesson that’s been lost on plenty of teams. Starting with a group of 2-2 Bengals still trying to shed their Super Bowl hangover after losing last year’s title to the Rams, there have been many examples of teams that got close enough to touch the brass ring but never got back to grab it.
Who in Boston can forget the Falcons team that was on the wrong end of the greatest Patriots comeback in Super Bowl history? From near-certain victory to heartbreaking defeat, Atlanta never recovered. Ownership was changing coaches within four seasons. Dan Quinn never sniffed a title again, and in the years since, neither Raheem Morris (one season) nor current head coach Arthur Smith has come close either.
The phenomenon is far from a football anomaly. The Red Sox spent an entire offseason banking on the belief that their 2021 journey, the one that fell two wins short of a World Series appearance, would propel their Swiss cheese roster through a similar 2022 joyride. Didn’t happen. Didn’t even come close, with the Sox looking up from the AL East basement.
Was it really only three years ago that the Bruins hosted Game 7 of the Stanley Cup Final? After all that work, after needing seven games to get by Toronto in the first round and another six to defeat Columbus in the second round, the Bruins earned themselves a nice pre-Stanley Cup break by sweeping the overmatched Hurricanes. But even with home ice advantage, they couldn’t get by St. Louis.
The Bruins haven’t gotten out of the second round of the playoffs since.
The 2021 Phoenix Suns can relate — NBA Finalists one year (losing to Milwaukee), second-round losers the next (thanks, Dallas). Or the 2012 Thunder, whose two-headed star monster of Kevin Durant and James Harden was topped by Miami’s Big Three of LeBron James, Dwyane Wade, and Chris Bosh in the Finals, who managed to earn the top seed in the 2022 playoffs before getting bounced in round two (thanks again, Dallas). They disappeared shorty thereafter.
The list goes on. The Mets feel like real contenders for the first time since losing the 2015 World Series to the Royals. The 49ers turn once again to Jimmy Garoppolo in the hopes of erasing the sting of a Super Bowl loss to Kansas City to end the 2019 season.
Replicating success doesn’t just happen — it takes work, and the right approach.
Brown believes these Celtics have those things.
“I think everyone was humbled in a sense, I hope, by the fact that we got to that point and lost,” he said. “I feel like everyone should have had as tough a summer as I did dealing with that. You know, listening to everyone saying you had such a great playoff and you’re going to get them next time. Sometimes there’s not a next time.
“You’ve got to take advantage of those situations. I think the attention to detail right now is high and alert, especially dealing with everything we got going on now. We understand there’s no guarantee you get back. Obviously we’re going to come and do what we’re supposed to do, but we don’t want to coast through the regular season in the hopes it will somehow fall together. I’ve been around long enough — I haven’t been around that long, but I know that it doesn’t work like that.”
Tatum was asked at the team’s Media Day last Monday if he believed this team could win a title, even with all the upheaval around Udoka.
“Absolutely I believe that, and I think everyone else does in that locker room,” he said, before adding the smartest warning of all.
“It’s a process and we can’t skip any steps.”