It was almost midnight when I jumped in my car and drove home after watching the Celtics beat the Warriors in Game 1 of the Finals.
As I fired up the car, Sly and the Family Stone’s “Thank You (Falettinme Be Mice Elf Agin)” was just beginning, and it seemed like the perfect tune for where the Celtics are right now.
It took a long time for the Celtics to get back to the Finals – twelve years have passed and seven other teams have won titles in the meantime. It’s been nine years since Ainge blew up the old core and started from scratch.
Those of us of Norwegian ancestry have been known to spend the long winter nights in South Dakota with “Ole and Lena” jokes – which often, but not always, play on supposed ignorance or, at times, l Innocence of the First Generation Norwegian Settlers.
One of my favorites finds Ole and Lena reunited in paradise, and as they walk around enjoying all the beautiful sights. Lena says to Ole, “Isn’t it so beautiful here?” and Ole replies, “You sure, and you know, we could’ve been here a lot sooner if it hadn’t been for that fucking nursing home feeding us all oatmeal.”
And so it is with the Celtics. As much as we enjoy this journey to the final, it’s hard to escape the idea that this team – or some variant of it – could have been here much sooner. But the fact is that we have to let go of this way of thinking.
This is all water under the bridge now, and there is evidence that because the C’s had to work so hard just to get here, they’re not going to take anything for granted.
You might think they came in late, but absolutely nothing was easy for these guys. And yes, you can watch a lot of their trials and point out that they were self-inflicted, but now that we’re here, does it really matter?
We still think guys should come into the league with an exclamation mark, like Bird and Russell did, but we also forget that those guys were veterans before they were rookies. Bird was a fifth-year senior in college before joining the Celtics, and Russell had already led the USF Dons to two NCAA titles (and a 55-game winning streak).
Jaylen and Jayson? They went from playing 16- and 17-year-olds to playing LeBron in two years.
No other pro league throws rookies off the dock like this, but it’s been done in the NBA for so long that we forget there was a time when players came into the league with experience that impacted the Game.
So let’s reset the clock a bit. Let’s go by age and not by NBA experience…
Jayson Tatum is in his first final at 24, as is Larry Bird.
If you think Tatum had four years of on-the-job training instead of an academic career, it’s a little easier to overlook some of the growing pains he had.
Ainge and Stevens, but especially Stevens, knew that growth is not a linear process for these children. Stevens saw it with his own eyes as a college coach.
There is a real adjustment period between being able to dominate players who are barely old enough to get a driver’s license and being able to dominate players who have been professional for a decade or more. it will take years so that even the best players fully make this transition.
There is a conflict between the quality you think is based on past experience and the quality you are based on your current competition, and that conflict is going to be frustrating at times. This is going to require some mental growth now that your physical abilities are no longer sufficient to get by. And along the way, you’re going to have to develop thick skin because the mistakes you make won’t be buried in games against late Division 1 programs amid blowouts. They’re going to be made in front of sold-out crowds in big cities where guys literally make a living finding fault with you and your teammates.
None of this is a linear process, and none of us have the right to expect it to be so.
But the Celtics stuck with their young guys. For the most part, regardless of what we thought as fans, neither the coaches nor the front office expected the team’s young core to meet unrealistic standards. They let them find their own path to greatness.
If the Cs can hold on and win, it’s because Ainge, Stevens and Udoka let them be themselves.