Learning Curves: Precocious Young Celtics Still Figuring It Out (No Lead is Safe in the NBA)

Charles Mingus’ “Self-Portrait in Three Colors”

I love the NBA. I love watching the puzzle of a playoff series unfold over the course of seven games. A single game is dramatic. A series of games becomes an unraveling story. We make predictions before. We watch. We react. We celebrate. We praise. We blame. The complexities inherent in any game’s result — 10 players on a court, 5-on-5 — get boiled down to a hero’s journey. Jayson Tatum. Kemba Walker. Bam Adebayo. Jimmy Butler. Each on their own career arc, meeting at this singular point in time, with a chance to advance to the same court and do it all over again in the Finals — -all in a hermetically sealed Orlando bubble.

The Miami Heat were not the favorites in the East. The Boston Celtics were not the favorites in the East. That designation belonged to the Milwaukee Bucks, who dominated the early season (which started almost a full year ago). The Bucks may have won the NBA title had it been played in June — certainly, they would have had a collective sense of certainty that appeared to fall away during the restart in late July and early August. The regular season is not the playoffs, and these playoffs are not like any playoffs we’ve seen before. No crowds, no travel, just a hotel room, a locker room and a very familiar court.

Had Giannis remained perfectly healthy for their second round series with Miami, the Bucks very well might have won in 7 games. Had Marcus Smart not turned into Ray Allen for a few minutes in Game 2 vs Toronto, the Celtics may have lost to the Raptors in 7 games. But the point is not to revisit the past — only to frame the argument — the context of this abnormal season and playoff-environment cannot be underestimated, even if we can’t quantify it (always a problem with a data-obsessed world — that pesky truth that all cannot be measured in numbers).

Age can be quantified. Jayson Tatum is 22. Goran Dragic is 34. Jaylen Brown is 23. Jimmy Butler is 31. What does age have to do with anything, you ask? Isn’t experience more important? Well, both are. While Tatum and Brown have been deep into the playoffs throughout their young careers, they are not 25 years-old…the age at which male brains finish developing their decision-making function. This is called executive functioning and involves organizing, planning and overall decision-making.

I’d love to read a study on how executive functioning impacts young athletes. Until then, I’ll believe that experience without age is like driving a car with three good tires and one spare. As long as you don’t have to go too far, you’ll be okay, but once the miles set in, the spare becomes a problem.

Executive functioning is decision-making. In the moment decision-making involves memory, processing, and improvisation. How do players learn? By specific drills? By expert coaching? By film study? Yes. But most importantly, by struggling. Some are born with great potential, but to achieve that potential takes failure and a certain mindset.

If you understand the psychology of learning and the idea of grit, you know this. Celtics coach Brad Stevens has certainly preached the gospel of growth mindset and focusing on the present moment, highlighting the influence of Carol Dweck in all aspects of his life.

If you want the Celtics to reach their peak over the next five years, you want the struggle. The Celtics value players who will take well to learning — see Al Horford signing, drafting of Rajon Rondo, Avery Bradley, Marcus Smart, Semi Ojeleye, Grant Williams. The problem is the opportunity to reach the Finals is close, just as it was in 2018 when they pushed LeBron’s Cavs to a 7th game.

You want Jayson Tatum and Jaylen Brown to have to deal with Nick Nurse and Erik Spoelstra scheming various defenses which throw off your 22 year-old budding superstar and his 23 year-old tag-team partner.

Toronto coach Nick Nurse designed a box-and-1 to throw off Kemba Walker’s rhythm. Though it enabled Jaylen Brown to have some big moments, the ploy worked well, as it kept Kemba from playing at his highest level after Nurse went back to man-to-man.

Miami’s Twilight Zones

Miami coach Erik Spoelstra used two different zones: 2–2–1 and a 2–3, both with the forwards at the top. Miami has long, physical, defensive-minded forwards in Jimmy Butler, Jae Crowder and Derek Jones Jr. (whose leaping ability and length are both eye-popping). Usually Jayson Tatum’s length allows him to pass over defenses, but like a quarterback facing a pass rush, Tatum had to make rapid-fire choices he isn’t used to. The pressure turned into turnovers. The whole team came unraveled in the third quarter — taking a total of 12 shots, committing 7 turnovers, and getting demoralized 37–17.

Bam Adebayo has hops.

Spoelstra also designed a high-pick-and-roll set that highlights Goran Dragic’ play-making and Bam Adebayo’s lob-catching abilities, by stationing Duncan Robinson (Miami’s version of Kyle Korver) as the only teammate on the strong side, Jaylen Brown is forced to stay on the perimeter. As noted elsewhere in the past month, Robinson and Adebayo complement each other perfectly. Boston’s defensive strengths are perimeter ball-pressure and switch-ability, with Daniel Theis providing great interior defense and positioning. But Spoelstra forced Theis out to Dragic/Herro by screening with Adebayo at the top. Theis at the top of the key, scrambling to keep up with the guard creates a mismatch for Bam. Stevens switched Jaylen Brown onto Dragic before the screen to allow Jaylen a chance to mix-it-up with Bam. Rookie Grant Williams did well in the pick-and-roll defense as well. The problem with taking Theis off the floor means the rim protection is gone. There is no win for the Celtics in this situation. Getting Bam off the floor due to foul trouble is the best strategy, but Bam is smart about avoiding fouls.

Big Leads Are Not Safe

If the Orlando bubble has taught us anything it is the fact that removing the crowd and creating a controlled environment seems to do two things:

  1. The obvious — no home court advantage and no road disadvantage;
  2. Take a severe mental/psychological toll on all involved.

Both of these aspects create an environment where mental toughness, self-motivation, grit and team cohesion/trust become essential.

You might argue that those are always essential in the NBA playoffs. I would counter that only astronauts, navy seals and those who’ve dedicated their careers to other group-focused Sisyphean tasks might deeply understand. As Jeff Van Gundy noted late in the Los Angeles Clippers Game 7 debacle, “Everyone can play well when things are going great. What about when things are going bad?”

With a 3–1 series lead on Denver, the Los Angeles Clippers crumbled when things got hard in three straight games…and they have Kawhi Leonard…arguably the most mentally-tough player in the NBA outside of LeBron James. During the first round of the playoffs, after dropping Game 4 to the Mavs, Doc Rivers was exasperated by his team’s play. He told the media his team was “ emotionally weak.” Paul George opened up about the mental toll the bubble environment had taken on him, saying he was “in a dark place,” and that the “bubble got the best of me.”

While Doc Rivers has been around the NBA for decades, and clearly loves competing, it’s fair to criticize him for throwing his team under the bus. Critical public comments meant to motivate are a tactic football coaches use. Basketball coaches are teachers, basketball teams need to trust each other, in the bubble more than ever. Tough love wasn’t the right approach.

The weight of expectations (Clippers picked to win it all after going all-in for Kawhi and George), combined with the bubble pressure, then coincided with a key player’s absence — Montrezl Harrell, who won the 6th man award, missed most of the seeding games due to a death in his family. Talent only takes a team so far.

Now, back to the East Finals.

The Celtics are the more talented team — so says the consensus media, despite the fact that Vegas only gave them a 58% chance — not a heavy favorite by any means. The more talented team takes a 14-point lead early in the 4th quarter. Expectations are set. If they lose, they lost. It’s convenient. It’s clear-cut. Did Miami win? I thought Miami won. No? The Celtics lost, will be the prevailing narrative, because so many of us prefer to blame — its easier.

Here’s a whopping slice of blame pie for social media clips. Except those expectations are based in outdated modes of analysis. A 14-point lead with 10 minutes remaining is not close to safe. Four three-pointers make that a one possession game. You cannot “run out the clock” in basketball. It messes with your offense and it changes your mindset away from controlled aggression to fear. NBA analysts and coaches talk about playing with “force.” You cannot play with force if you’re watching the clock and hoping for the best. Especially if you’re not 30 years old. Especially not in a bubble environment. Especially not without fans pushing you toward the buzzer while you fight off exhaustion.

The Miami Heat won a very close game in Game 1. The Miami Heat won a very close game in Game 2. These games are coin-flips. Nobody should win them. But a team eventually does. Now the Celtics have to open their minds and get ready to learn.

Game 3 is Saturday.

Writing. Poetry. Personal Essays. On the NBA, MLB, media, journalism, culture, teaching and humor.

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