Storyline: Boston Celtics Turmoil?

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Card games, dice games, enthusiastic chatter and some music from DJ Kyrie, according to several players who all agreed the team’s spirits changed by the time the flight landed in California. “It was a good ride,” Marcus Morris said. “It just so happened to come after we got our ass beat. And at that time it kind of changed the outlook on everything, and guys just had a better attitude, man. Just more positive. And I think it carried over into the games.”

“Because we have a team that’s so talented, the media is always going to [overreact],” Celtics forward Marcus Morris told Yahoo Sports. “You lose one game and it’s like the [end of the world]. But now, I bet now since we won the game [Tuesday night], they’re going to be like, ‘Ah, [expletive], now they can go to the championship and all this other [expletive]. You know how it goes. It’s just what it is. But I think this was a good game for us, a great turnaround. It was a big win on Golden State’s home court. It’s definitely a statement win for us.”

These days, Irving plays lackadaisical defense, and unfocused offense. Sources around the team told me that Irving’s persona has changed, too: He’s become disengaged and detached from those around the team. There is talk that Irving’s friendships on the team start and end with Tatum, with whom he shares an agent. Two sources peg Irving’s change in demeanor to early February, around the time he was asked about the possibility of joining the New York Knicks next season. That’s when Irving infamously said he’d make the best decision for his family and that he didn’t “owe anybody shit.” This induced panic among Boston fans. After all, it was a much different tune than the one Irving was singing in October 2018, when he told a gathering of Celtics season-ticket holders that he intended to re-sign with the team (multiple sources say that same commitment was expressed to his teammates).

On Sunday afternoon, Boston Celtics guard Kyrie Irving was entering TD Garden ahead of a nationally televised game against the Houston Rockets. Ordinarily, it would be the kind of moment Irving lived for: a big stage, a big opponent, and a big moment. “I’m not gonna miss any of this shit when I’m done playing,” said Irving. Someone standing nearby noted that the lights and cameras are all part of basketball. Irving responded, “I don’t care if it is.”

Or maybe they have one, and that identity is discontent. I spent some time around the team over the past few days, in Boston. After Friday’s win against the Wizards, all you could hear was the thud of Semi Ojeleye’s weights hitting the floor behind a closed door next to the Celtics locker room. Besides a short conversation between Irving and Rozier, everyone in the locker room was quiet. According to various team reporters, it’s been like that all year, no matter if the team wins or loses.
3 weeks ago via ESPN

Heading into Sunday’s game against the Houston Rockets (3:30 p.m. ET, ABC), the Celtics (38-25) sit in fifth place in the Eastern Conference, two games behind the Philadelphia 76ers for fourth and home-court advantage in the first round. “I really have a lot of hope for these guys,” Grousbeck said. “I give us a chance. I don’t think anybody wants to play us in the playoffs. I really do think, after 16 years in the league, that these guys still have a chance.”

Apparently their head coach concurs. Brad Stevens was asked directly Wednesday on 98.5 The Sports Hub’s “Zolak & Bertrand” if there’s a “chemistry issue” on the Celtics and seemed to confirm as much. “As I’ve said many times, in our locker room I think we have a bunch of well-intentioned guys. I really do,” Stevens said. “But there’s been no question that ever since the start of the year, being able to play well together has been off and on. It hasn’t been as good as it can be or needs to be.”

Kyrie Irving was no different than the rest of the Celtics who reacted to Marcus Morris’ harsh criticism of the team following a home loss to the Los Angeles Clippers a week ago. “There was some truth into [Morris’ comments],” said Irving, who has missed the past two games – both Celtics wins – following Morris’ comments and spoke on the matter for the first time Saturday. “We obviously understand we have a lot of talent in our locker room,” Irving said. “So, it’s been a lot to manage. We’ve come out pretty successful. Obviously, not as successful as we would like to be.”

Marcus​ Morris missed​ the​ playoffs during​ five of his​ first six​ NBA seasons.​ He once played on​ a team that finished​​ the regular season with 25 wins. Now that he sees the best opportunity of his career, he sounds plenty urgent to capitalize on it. “I’ve been in the league eight years. I haven’t been on a team that has a chance to win a championship,” Morris said Monday afternoon. “And I’m on it now. I can smell it, I can taste it. And I just felt like one thing we’re missing is enjoying the game, enjoying this process, and I just spoke on it.”

“The Big Three only got one,” Morris said, “and they had a hell of a team. So that tells you how hard this shit is. As I’m going back and watching different times of them winning, that shit looked like it was a lot of fun. They looked like they really had a fucking ball. They worked their ass off, but they really had a good time playing with each other no matter what was going on off the court. It really looked genuine. It looked like they were enjoying the game.”

Jay King: Marcus Morris said when he looks at the Celtics he sees a bunch of individuals. Said he sees everyone else having fun around the league, they don’t have fun. “It hasn’t been fun for a long time.” Marcus Morris: “I watch all these other teams around the league and guys are up on the bench … they’re enjoying everything, and they’re playing together and they’re playing to win. And when I look at us I just see a bunch of individuals.”

“The goal has to be to win,” Morris said. “Bottom line. We’ve gotta play to win. That’s sacrificing playing hard, that’s sacrificing being a better teammate, that’s sacrificing whatever it is. We have to put it to the side. No one’s getting traded. The trade deadline’s over. We’re competing for a championship. And that’s how we’ve gotta approach these games. Win, lose or draw, man. We’re going to lose games, but we don’t have no attitude, we don’t have no toughness, we ain’t having fun. It’s been a long season.”
2 months ago via ESPN

“[Jaylen] was right. I gotta do the right things and not point fingers at individuals and really realize what we can do as group, despite when we go on the road or the mishaps we may have. I’ve been there to the championship. I’ve tasted it. But I can’t expect that they’re gonna get it. I’m just really working on my patience and just coming to helping these guys realize that we can do it against the best teams; but in order to be that championship-level team, we gotta do that every single day to help our team prove to not just the Raptors or Golden State that we can play with them, but we gotta prove it to every team that we can really play with them.”

Clearly, he’s not afraid of his words being drowned out over the course of 82 games. He’s craved this moment and this level of influence. His teammates are taking heed, saying his words were encouraging about the comeback Monday, which saw the Celtics cut the lead to seven with a minute remaining. “It’s the truth,” Celtics second-year forward Jayson Tatum said. “He knows what it takes to win a championship and most of us don’t. Sometimes you have to be brutally honest in this profession to get the best out of one another. It came from a good place.”

On Monday, Irving seemed to walk his comments back a little bit. But he reiterated that the Celtics’ opportunity to win is what keeps him edgy whenever it feels like Boston isn’t playing to its potential. “When you win, you want to taste it again,” Irving said. “I never want to come from a place where I don’t want to sound like or maybe feel like I don’t want to win a championship. Sometimes I may come off and say things, never to question my teammates in public like that ever again, but I just want to win so bad. I came from a place where I asked for a trade and I come in here and believe in this organization, and I want these young guys to be successful. In order to do that we’ve all got to be on the same page and have that mindset that, a championship or nothing, and that can get the best of me at times.”

At some point, the Celtics need to get off the roller coaster. “Yeah, you get to a point where you have great games, good games,” Marcus Smart told the Herald as he slumped against a wall that led out of the visitors’ dressing room, in Orlando. “And then you turn around and have a game like this, and, you know, it’s hard. It’s frustrating. It’s monotonous and real, real, real repetitive right now, and something’s got to change to stop that. We’ve got to get better as a team. We’ve got to close out games better. We can’t let guys play like All-Stars and beat us on their own. That’s how it’s been for us all year. I don’t know what to tell you. We’re going to keep getting our butts kicked and keep getting beat if we don’t change it. That’s all I can say.”

The close proximity of highs and lows is wearing on the Celts. “Obviously, man, we’ve got to get it together,” said Marcus Morris. “You know, we show a lot of signs of greatness, and then we take a step back. It’s still a long season. Forty games left. If we keep chipping at it, keep getting better, you know, the best is yet to come, I think. I mean, man we up and down. But we’re still staying positive and I still think we’ll turn it around and start getting better.”

When he expanded on the Celtics’ overall state, though, Irving had plenty to say. A team that most expected to be one of the league’s best is currently 25-17 and in fifth place in the Eastern Conference. To Irving, the team’s struggles boil down to one thing. “Experience,” he said. “We’re lacking it, and because of that we have a lot of learning to do.” Irving later added: “The young guys don’t know what it takes to be a championship level team. What it takes every day. And if they think it is hard now, what do they think it will be like when we’re trying to get to the Finals?”

Long after that play, long after his teammates had departed the locker room, Irving did not really want to expand on his clear frustration with the game’s end. Earlier, Hayward acknowledged it for him. “I think he would have liked for me to pass it to Al and have him cut off of it,” Hayward said. “You know, it was late clock, and we’ve worked on that play before and I’ve seen [Tatum] hit that in practice countless times, so I felt like it was a good shot.”

Celtics president of basketball operations Danny Ainge said he is not concerned about the minor altercation involving Marcus Morris and Jaylen Brown in the second quarter of Boston’s loss to the Heat Thursday. The incident occurred during a timeout with 7 minutes 12 seconds left in the second quarter. In a video posted on Instagram by a fan who was sitting behind Boston’s bench, Morris is seen shoving Brown with two hands. Brown did not react, and teammates quickly got between them before the situation escalated further. “It’s two good kids that are competitive,” Ainge said by phone from Boston Friday. “They both want the same thing. Emotions happen in games, and I’m not worried about it.”

Ainge was well aware of the situation when speaking with the Herald today. “I honestly didn’t think anything of it,” the club’s president of basketball operations said in a phone conversation. “I like Marcus’ and Jaylen’s character and personalities and feistiness, and, like, I just think nothing of something like this. It’s something where those things happen to best friends even. Heck, I remember those things happening to (Rajon) Rondo and Perk (Kendrick Perkins). You know, they’re best buddies, but it’s just the heat of the battle, and I didn’t have a second thought about it.”

Ainge clearly was not a fan of Brown being lax getting back on defense, and neither, it seems, is Brad Stevens, who removed him from the game. Brown did not return until the last 37 seconds of the third quarter, though Stevens said that was because the group on the floor was engineering a comeback. Brown played just 13:50. “Everybody has those moments, and those are way more of a concern,” said Ainge is the defensive lapse. “But I know that my coach calls guys out on those things and shows them on film and manages those things really well.”
3 months ago via ESPN

The most pointed criticisms of the team’s recent play — and the reasoning behind the meeting — came from Irving, who repeatedly cited a lack of “cohesion” and said that there has been “some selfish play” among his teammates. “At this point it comes down to cohesion, being able to trust the pass, trust what we have going on out there,” Irving said. “Obviously some selfish play out there where … we have some really talented guys, but we’re better as a team sharing the basketball. And, if it’s late in the shot clock, that’s when we start shooting our iso plays, as opposed to if we have nothing in transition shooting with 16 or 17 on the clock, or shooting a fadeaway, something like that.

“I am,” he said, “but we’ve got to stop sugarcoating things. That’s the problem. We’ve got to stop sugarcoating it. We’ve just got to call it what it is. We’re playing like punks; that’s just what it is. “It’s not everybody. You’ve got guys out there that are playing and playing hard. That’s some, but we don’t have all five guys at the same time. So teams are going to continue to whup us.”

“It’s us not playing hard,” he said. “It has nothing to do with being tentative, because obviously you see guys jacking up shots, so it can’t be us being tentative. “You know, at some point when a guy scores on you repeatedly — a team busts on you repeatedly — eventually you’re going to get tired of it hopefully. But that’s not the case with us. We’re OK with getting down 20 or getting down early or letting teams get hot, letting teams feel comfortable.”

Ainge spoke with Thomas yesterday after the All-Star had questioned Brad Stevens’ substitution pattern in Monday’s loss to the Clippers. It was the second time this season Thomas had let his frustration out in a public fashion, and Ainge defended his coach while trying to make it a learning experience for his star. “Nobody prepares more for a game than Brad,” Ainge told the Herald, “not even Isaiah, who really prepares. Players don’t know what it’s like to coach. I took Isaiah’s comments as frustration. He hates to lose. But good leaders don’t look for blame. It’s easy to lead when things are going well. It’s much more difficult when adversity strikes. And everyone will face adversity. I know Brad is a great coach — even one of the best — but that doesn’t mean he won’t make a mistake, just like great players do. But I know he will learn from his mistakes because he doesn’t look to place blame but looks internally for what he can do to maximize his talent.”

Before the morning session to prepare for meeting with the Warriors on the other side of the bay, Thomas at first joked, “It’s you guys’ fault, man. “Nah,” he went on, “it’s whatever. It happens. I didn’t mean to throw anybody under the bus. That’s not me. I just said how I felt at that time. My job is to just to move on and do my job and don’t make it a distraction, because it’s not. I didn’t do it to throw anybody under the bus. I was frustrated. I thought we should have won the last two games, and that’s just how I felt. I mean, I was always taught to speak my mind. But for the most part, I don’t want to be a distraction. My teammates know that. It’s bigger than how I feel, I guess. I’m just going to move forward and look forward to tonight, and hopefully we can get a win.”

According to Stevens, the way Thomas dealt with things after speaking to the media in L.A. kept it from being an obstacle. “Isaiah reached out to me really quickly,” said the coach. “If it would have been reversed, where I would have had to initiate it, I think that may be an issue. But it wasn’t, so, again, I didn’t lose any sleep over it. I didn’t put much thought into it until it became a deal that everybody was talking about, and, at the point in time, I heard from Isaiah pretty quickly. So I don’t put a lot of stock (into it). I understand the emotions and how high they run at the end of games, win or lose. I have to go out there every day and talk after the game, too, and it’s not an easy thing to do all the time. And so I get it, and I’m OK with the fact that people are going to say some things, and you may have to have that moment where you communicate back and forth. But I don’t put too much stock into it, to be honest.”
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March 22, 2019 | 4:37 am EDT Update
Now that Russell is getting some good pub — the narratives flipping from lottery bust to Magic Johnson gave up on him too quickly — he won’t let it distract him. “I’ve been on the worst side of the tilt,” Russell said after Thursday’s practice at Santa Monica High School. “So to now to be on this side where we’re having a little success, I’ve seen both narratives. I’ve seen every narrative you could throw. When it comes to preparing myself for them, I’ve looked in the mirror and I’ve put myself in the situation before [the media] could.”