BOSTON – All season, the kids largely shouldered the blame for something that was most often a sign of a much bigger issue. The Celtics “young guys” – as Kyrie Irving would refer to them in a tone that struck as more condescending than full of promise – heard from talk radio, segments of the fan base, and at the most stinging some of their own veteran teammates, that they were the reason this Celtics team was not contending for a top seed in the East the way so many had predicted it would.
This was a group – Jaylen Brown, Terry Rozier, Jayson Tatum – that defied odds one game after another in last year’s playoffs in leading the Celtics to Game 7 of the Eastern Conference finals without Irving and Gordon Hayward. Yet, with the older siblings back in town healthy, they heard time and time again about how they didn’t really know, or hadn’t really done, anything, and for the team’s sake had best follow the real leaders, and learn their respective roles.
There was some bristling. Rozier allowed “my attitude” was holding him back in a reserve role after emerging as a face of the franchise during the “Scary Terry” heyday last spring. Brown shoved back at some of Irving’s more pointed and repeated criticisms – saying it starts “at the top” – when it comes to exhibiting leadership on the squad.
Irving later admitted “JB was right” on that assessment.
Tatum didn’t say as much. But he may have benefited from a role that stayed largely the same as last year’s, and a close relationship with Irving that helped shield him from the brunt of the franchise star’s frustration.
There is little question there was a divide between the team’s veterans and youth for at least part of the regular season. But, in the end, the “young guys” proved to be the bigger men.
After a tough start to the year as he battled a hand injury, Brown was at times the second best player on the team, and has only elevated his game both offensively and defensively in the postseason. Tatum showed signs of making that second-year leap so many predicted from him coming into the year as he dominated the Indiana Pacers during the four-game sweep in Round 1. And Rozier – perhaps the most singled out of all, and of whom Celtics coach Brad Stevens said before Game 2 had to sacrifice the most out of anyone on the team this season – let his defense do the talking with an NBA-best 84.3 rating in the first round.
“If I’m going to play the way I play,” Rozier said after a long shooting drill and a series of wind sprints following Friday’s hour-long practice ahead of Sunday’s Game 1 of the Eastern Conference semifinals in Milwaukee, “if I’m going to pick up guys fullcourt, then I try to pride myself in coming in here being in top-notch shape. That’s what it’s going to have to take.”
It’s taken a lot of pride-swallowing for players like Brown and Rozier to arrive at the point where they have this season. But they have shown through much of the latter part of the season – and especially in the first round of the playoffs – they were ready to relinquish the spot on center stage they basked in last spring for complementary roles in search of something greater.
“I don’t even look at it,” Brown said Friday of the thrilling postseason push a year ago. “Last year was what it was. Nobody cares anymore. This year we’ve got to come out, and play well, to be successful.
“We’re focused on that.”
Brown has taken to heart his role as a shutdown defender and showed a willingness against the Pacers to give up his own shot for a teammate’s chance to throw a dagger. Rozier went from being a scorer first to being the ball of whirlwind playmaking and energy the Celtics needed him to be off the bench – especially at the start of the fourth quarters that were critical to multiple Boston comebacks. Tatum put some of the Kobe Bryant teachings aside in search of better shots and more productive two-way opportunities.
The kids have gone from being accused – in some circles – of sabotaging this year’s championship push to being some of the main reasons why the Celtics were the first team to punch their ticket to the conference semifinals.
“(Our depth is) something we’re going to look forward to (as an advantage) for the rest of this way,” Rozier said. “We’ve got a lot of guys who really can play. Coach switched up the lineup a little bit. But we’ve been out there. Everybody’s been playing with one another.”
It doesn’t mean the young guys are going to shy away from that spotlight. It just means that they have found a way to feel the power of that light even when it is not shining directly on them.
“We’ve got to come out and be locked in whoever is on the floor,” Brown said of the EC semis. “Whoever is not on the floor still has to be locked in. These games we’re going to need everybody. It might be somebody else’s game. It might be my game. It might be Kyrie’s. It might be JT’s. Whoever it is, we’ve got to be out there and ready.
“We can’t be sitting around waiting for them to punch first. We’ve got to do the punching.”