After winning title, Celtics must find new source of motivation
WALTHAM, Mass. -- Paul Pierce was sitting in a hallway outside the Celtics' offices when he was interrupted by a loud scream from the adjoining TV studio.
"We all know who that is, huh?'' Pierce said, doubled over with laughter. "That woke my daughter up -- and she's at home.''
The screamer was Kevin Garnett, recording a video-board exclamation that will launch 41 or more Celtics games in Boston this season. It was his way of declaring that the champions are not inclined to relax, even though he, Pierce and Ray Allen have already succeeded in fulfilling their lengthy careers.
All champions promise they won't take it easy. The rest of the league will hope the Celtics break that guarantee. It will raise the outlook of teams like the Lakers, Pistons and Spurs if the Celtics limit themselves.
Now that he is an NBA champion -- indeed, the Finals MVP -- Pierce is making statesmanlike pronouncements that might never have occurred to him just a few years ago, when he was presiding over a Celtics franchise going nowhere.
"It's about staying motivated and going out there during the regular season and taking the steps like we did last year and not getting bored with the process,'' he told me Monday on the eve of training camp. "When you win a championship, I think the natural tendency is to try to coast through the regular season. With the guys we have -- myself, Kevin and Ray -- I don't think we're going to allow that. We understood the steps it took to get to where we wanted to get, and we're going to try to do the same thing this year.''
The Celtics were greeted at media day with questions about their motivation. At this time last year, Pierce, Garnett and Allen had played in 22 All-Star Games and earned a preposterous $368 million among them -- but they had never reached an NBA Finals. Each changed his style harshly in order to accomplish what had been, for them, impossible.
Now they'll have to come up with an entirely new motive. Here's one: to win another title or two and push this Celtics team -- and themselves -- higher up the historical charts.
"I think of it like you're a businessman,'' Pierce said. "You get to a certain level. You're a manager. You say, 'Damn, I'm a manager -- now I want to be CEO.' Then it's, 'I'm CEO; I want to be president.' It's like that. You always want to find ways to get better and move all the way to the top. Until somebody says that I'm the greatest ever to do it, then I've still got a long ways to go.''
While it's entirely fair to raise questions about their post-parade ambitions -- they have a one-year track record of playing as they did last year, as opposed to decades of playing the other way -- the championship may turn out to be a liberating event for them.
Throughout last season, Garnett, Pierce and Allen were fighting doubts about themselves and their abilities to lead a championship team. Deep down they had to be wondering if their hard work would fall short. Their absence of confidence in the early playoff rounds against Atlanta and Cleveland was alarming. But they fought through those insecurities together, and now they're stronger and surely more confident. The result may be that they'll play less like the playoff team that couldn't win a game in Atlanta, and more like the group that ran away from Kobe Bryant's Lakers in Game 6 of the Finals.
I asked Pierce if he used to doubt whether he could become a championship player. "That's always the question when you haven't done it,'' he admitted. "It's something you think about -- for any player who hasn't won it. You think, Are you that type of player who can win it? At the same time, you believe that if you get the opportunity like we had last year, you have to take advantage of it.''
If confidence is everything in sports, then the Celtics' three stars have never been stronger than they are today.
"The experience is what gives you that confidence,'' Garnett told me. "You know what to expect, you know the level you have to play at. Those are the things that give you confidence. We have the tools, we know what to expect. We've got the blueprint.''
Allen had a different view. "Not a whole lot changes -- not in my mind, not for myself and my situation,'' he said. "Even when I've seen other players win championships and I've been around them, I've never felt like I couldn't compare or I couldn't stand up to them. I've always said the guys that win championships are lucky. Not only do you have to have a person [as owner and/or GM] that wants to win championships in that organization, but then you've got to have 12 or 13 guys that want to do the same thing. And that requires luck to fall in your favor.''
But Allen enters this season with a much better feeling for his role on the team, both as a surprisingly capable defender as well as a shooter who augmented his role as the No. 3 option by developing into a ball-handling quarterback during the Finals.
In some ways, the Celtics will be forced to develop a new style this year. Amid the losses of James Posey to free agency and P.J. Brown to retirement, they added young players in forward Darius Miles and center Patrick O'Bryant along with rookies J.R. Giddens and Bill Walker (an athletic swingman who should emerge as one of the steals of the second round) while promising a bigger role to guard Tony Allen. Last year's Celtics were big and tough inside; this is more of a slashing, perimeter-based team that lacks the smarts and outside shooting that was crucial last year.
It's no sure thing that they're going to repeat. The only certainty is that Allen, Pierce and Garnett know that they're capable. And that alone will give them a huge advantage over opponents who won't be quite so sure about themselves.
Allen is looking forward to the arguments that helped define last year's team. There was a lot of infighting, and he said the Celtics could not have won without it.
"It was harder than it looked,'' he said. "We definitely went through adversity last year. We had arguments in the locker room, arguments on the bus, arguments on the plane, arguments on the court. It was just little stuff. But I think teams that don't argue are teams that don't really care enough or want it enough.
"We were fighting for it because everybody thinks they know how to do it. So together we have to come to even ground. We fought for a lot -- the players, the coaches, everybody, because we all had to give ground in order for us all to be on the same page. We really fought to be on the same page.''
This is one of those paradoxical lessons that a championship year teaches the champions: Dissension is healthy. Winning teaches the winners to believe that even the bad times will turn out well.
"You have to fight for it,'' Allen went on. "Because there's going to come a point where somebody's getting beat and we've got to go at him. We've got to demand more from him, whether it's me or somebody else -- we've got to go get it.''