Watching the way the Celtics are playing now brings to mind their forefathers from the 1980s. Unfortunately, we’re talking about the very late ’80s. The teams from that decade needed more than just their significant talent to win. They were often tougher and willing to work harder than their opponents. But a strange thing happened as the decade got late. Though they still clearly were one of the NBA’s elite teams, they started acting like it was their birthright. And that was a problem.
One very good point and one head-scratcher. The Boston Celtics' teams from the 1980s needed more than just talent to win. Of this there can be little dispute. Check out this article from 1985 if you need a refresher about the hard-hat, blue-collar manner in which Bird's Celtics played basketball, or this series of articles from 1987 if you want a graduate course in heart and courage on the hardwood.
Which brings us to the second claim that the Celtics of the late 1980s started playing basketball like winning titles was their birthright. Give me a break. Let me first be clear on one point. Bird's Celtics played with a swagger that was matched only by Magic's Lakers (and maybe, to some extent, Zeke's Pistons). But to suggest that the swagger somehow got in the way of winning games is off mark. Sure the Celtics took nights off. Look here, here, and here for that.
But talented players taking a few nights off and playing a few bad games does not mean that they lost games due to a sense of entitlement. Players are human. It is virtually impossible for even the most well-conditioned and committed athletes to play an 82-game schedule over six months without experiencing a few physical or emotional letdowns. Look at the 2007-08 Boston Celtics, a team thought by many fans and pundits to have played the entire regular season like it was the seventh game of the NBA Finals. Sure, they started out the season 29-3. Once that streak was over, however, they dropped 6 of their next 13 games. They also lost the first three games after the All-Star break to teams they'd handily defeated earlier in the season. Why? They were still on break. A year later they started 27-2, and then proceeded to lose six of their next nine.
Players have ups and downs, and veteran players who realize the prize is not awarded until June may have a difficult time getting up for games early in the schedule. I was there for the demise of the 1980s Celtics. I watched it. They won every regular season game they possibly could. KC Jones made sure of that by grinding the starters into the ground with big minutes. The reason the older Celtics got into trouble was because of 1) injuries; 2) old age; 3) younger opponents; and 4) more talented opponents. That's it. They may have taken some games for granted (expansion teams at home), but they still put their hard hats on and went to work.
I don't see that being the case thus far for the 2009-10 Boston Celtics. They've played long stretches of lethargic and listless basketball. They might be rightfully accused of meandering around the basketball court in a fog. I don't ever recall that being the case in the late 1980s. Every night the late 1980s Celtics played basketball knowing that home court was at stake. They had to win at least 60 regular season games if they wanted a shot at home court in the ECFs or NBA Finals against younger, arguably more talented teams. And those Celtics' teams took home court VERY SERIOUSLY, having gone 50-1 in 1986 at home (regular season and playoffs) and 39-2 (regular season) in 1987.
A sense of entitlement, I remember not.