Lowe: The Celtics are talented, but this wasn’t supposed to happen

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Brett Brown, the Philadelphia 76ers head coach, is fond of saying, “The pass is king.” As the Boston Celtics extended to a 3-0 lead against Philadelphia in the Eastern Conference semifinals, making seemingly every big play, some Celtics staffers began whispering their own version: “Toughness is king.”

The last slide of the film edit that Brad Stevens, Boston’s coach, showed his team before Game 3 in Philadelphia contained a definition of toughness Stevens found recently in a book (he can’t recall which one; he reads a lot): “Toughness is being able to physically and emotionally perform your task through any condition.”

Stevens had been annoyed by Boston’s approach to Game 3 of its first-round series against the Milwaukee Bucks, and he wanted his team to play each possession with urgency. That, to Stevens, is toughness.

“If things are going really well in a home game, do you get caught up in that, or do you keep playing the right way?” Stevens asked in a chat with ESPN.com the day after Boston’s Game 3 win in Philadelphia. “If things are going like they were in the second quarter last night [when the Sixers went on a run], do you say, ‘I have a job to do and I’m going to do it, and I don’t care that everyone is going nuts over this [Joel] Embiid dunk?’ That is toughness. It sounds cliché, but the hardest thing to do is stay in the moment and do your job.”

Those of us who picked against the Celtics in these playoffs (guilty, twice) have probably underestimated their raw talent. They are filled with multi-positional wings perfect for the modern NBA. Their best lineups, with Al Horford at center, consist of three No. 3 overall picks (Horford, Jaylen Brown, the implausible Jayson Tatum), a Marcus selected either high (Smart) or low (Morris) in the lottery, and an almost-lottery guy in “Scary Terry” Rozier.

But beyond those six, the Celtics really have only one trust-him-every-game rotation guy: Aron Baynes. Remove either Horford, Brown or Tatum and they become dangerously short on 3-point shooting. Three of their starters are way ahead of even the most optimistic schedules.

So, yes, Boston is talented. But this wasn’t supposed to happen. A few days before the season, Danny Ainge, the team’s general manager, gathered Horford, Kyrie Irving and Gordon Hayward for a private meeting, Horford recalled. Ainge told them it would be their jobs to mentor the young guys. That was what was supposed to happen.

A week later, Hayward shattered his leg in the season opener at the Cleveland Cavaliers. Boston rallied but lost. It lost again the next night at home to the Milwaukee Bucks. After a win at Philly completed a three-games-in-four-nights whirlwind, Stevens called a meeting to take stock. “We needed to be together,” he said.

He told the players Hayward would be OK. But Stevens wanted to shift their focus to the remaining 79 games. He warned them: Don’t use your youth as excuse, Stevens and several players recalled. “Expedite your learning curve,” Stevens remembered saying. “If there’s film to watch, or something you need to work on with a coach, go do it.”


Almost every playoff team has one or two guys who make you wonder: Are they really ready for this? Are they going to shrink under postseason pressure? How will they respond when the other team amps up the physicality?

Boston has zero such players. This is a fierce team. No one is afraid to shoot, or venture outside his proven skill set — something almost everyone has had to do since Irving’s knee surgery. They give maximum effort every second. It is a focused effort; they rarely veer out of scheme. Hit them, and they hit back — harder. Nurturing such a strong culture while returning only four players from last season’s team is an enormous challenge.

It starts with Ainge, who has a soft spot for manic competitors. All things (almost) equal, Ainge is going to take the guy who needs to get loose balls. “My staff laughs at me,” Ainge told ESPN.com, “because I always gravitate to those kinds of players.” He is still gushing about Aaron Craft.

Gather enough tough players and it can have an exponential effect on a team’s collective toughness. They inspire each other to more intense fury. They hold everyone accountable; even brief moments of lethargy and weakness are unacceptable. Wyc Grousbeck, the team’s owner, compares them to a crew team rowing together: They feel when one guy is giving only 90 percent, and either push him harder or eventually replace him. “This is my favorite Celtics team ever, in terms of energy, camaraderie and underdog spirit,” Grousbeck said.

“This is a special team,” Ainge said. “This is as much fun as I’ve ever had.”

Ainge picks the players, but Stevens is the arbiter of playing time. The (deserved) fawning over his stoic demeanor and play-calling genius has obscured another fundamental truth: Stevens is something of an old-school hard-ass. “If guys aren’t doing their jobs,” Horford said, “they just won’t play.”

In Boston’s seventh game of the season, Shane Larkin failed to pursue a loose ball along the left sideline:

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