... I have been totally captivated by the Boston Celtics and the wondrous Jayson Tatum in recent weeks. They have won, as of this writing, 16 of their last 18 games and five in a row; they have been climbing rapidly in the standings and look like they could be the real deal.
I don't know about you, but I can't wait for the NBA season to begin.
What's that? It began five months ago and is in fact nearing completion? Oh, I get it; you're referring to the preseason games that are euphemistically called "the regular season" but which are actually just 81 games held to establish seeding for the real season games, otherwise known as "the playoffs."
That's when the games begin to really count. No one remembers who won the most games in "the regular season," but everyone knows who won the playoffs. That's why they are crowned as champions.
That said, I have been totally captivated by the Boston Celtics and the wondrous Jayson Tatum in recent weeks. They have won, as of this writing, 16 of their last 18 games and five in a row; they have been climbing rapidly in the standings and look like they could be the real deal. We'll know when the playoffs begin. Back in November and December, they won some and they lost some and seemed not to care much which it was. They blew some big leads and appeared to just shrug it off. Tatum and Jaylen Brown were trying to do everything themselves while the other guys on the court seemed to be just standing around. I lost interest -- actually, I lost interest in the team a year ago when they were seemingly indifferent to what happened.
But things have changed in the last few months. Have they ever. Tatum has taken over a real leadership role. He's not only scoring, but he's also distributing the ball, involving everyone in the game, and it's showing. The Celtics care again and I, for one, care again, too.
A lot of the credit should go to their rookie coach, the guy with the exotic name, and his staff. Ime (pronounced "Eemay") Udoka took a little while to get his sea legs, but now seems to be in complete control. The team has bought into his philosophy that everything starts with a good, hard-nosed defense. It's something that he and his assistants preach constantly, and assistants are something he has plenty of. His staff consists of six assistant coaches. The team can only dress 13 players for a game so, counting Udoka, that comes out to more than one coach for every two players in uniform.
Times have changed since the 50s and 60s when Red Auerbach had no assistants on the bench and also functioned as the team's general manager, traveling secretary, business agent, controller of tickets, and anything else that came up. In addition to his assistants, Udoka also oversees three "player enhancement" (whatever that means) people. In addition, he also has a personal assistant, whose job, one imagines, must be to keep track of all the other assistants. It's not an unusual set up; it's just the way things are done in the NBA these days.
In any case, it seems to be working. The Celtics are playing terrific defense, Tatum has become a real leader, and, most important, they are winning.
Tatum, though only 24 years old, has already scored as many 50 point games in his career as Larry Bird did back in the 80s. No one is suggesting that he is the equal of Bird -- not yet, anyway. Bird won championships; Tatum hasn't done that yet, but there's still plenty of time.
When Bird first came into the league back in 1979, he was already a fully formed great player. Back then, the Celtics' games were carried on WBZ radio and Johnny Most, when he'd occasionally come into the station to cut promo announcements, would sit drinking coffee in what passed as a cafeteria and kibitz with anyone who was interested. I can remember the training camp of Bird's rookie year when Johnny would just rave about what a terrific player he was. He even compared Bird's creative passing skills to those of the sainted Bob Cousy. I thought that was a little over the top, but then the games started and it turned out that Most was right.
Tatum was only 19 when he broke in with the Celtics, having played just one year of college ball at Duke. He was already a prolific scorer but not yet fully formed as a player. His ability to set up his teammates, to involve them, and to make them better players had not yet come to the fore. It seems to have developed this year. Let's hope it has. He's making more than 32 million bucks a year. He's emerged as the leader of the team, but it was only a few months ago when he wasn't shooting well, when opposing teams would double and triple team him without much fear that he'd dish the ball off to an open man, when the Celtics would squander big leads in the closing moments of games, and worst of all, that they didn't seem to care that much.
Now, however, things seem to be totally different. The new coach is in full command; the young leader seems to be embracing his role; the team is playing terrific defense; everyone is on the same page. And I am, too.
Can they keep it up? Can they hold their own against the best the NBA has to offer? Can they go deep, maybe very deep, into the playoffs? Anything less would be a huge disappointment. In short, it comes down to this: are the Boston Celtics for real?
I can hardly wait for the basketball season to begin.
- Dick Flavin is a New York Times bestselling author; the Boston Red Sox "Poet Laureate" and The Pilot's recently minted Sports' columnist.
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