The Celtics have their own style. Instead of a direction like “cut directly to the basket”, the Celtics whiteboard reads “no dancing” a phrase I initially took as a play on LeBron’s controversial celebration before Rasheed Wallace informed me it was strictly a basketball term. And the Celtics still hold on to the motto of their championship season—a word with style, yet representing something simple—much like their team.
“Ubuntu,” which means defining oneself based on what is accomplished as a team, is the prevailing thought process of the Celtics. Buying into a concept of togetherness is really the only way players with such tremendous individual accomplishments can view their team as a group rather than a platform. And the Celtics chanted this phrase all the way to a title.
Two years later, do the Celtics still hold fast to the mentality that made them champions?
“When we get in every day, it’s still 1…2…3…ubuntu every night,” said center Kendrick Perkins.
Guard Ray Allen said, “Well it’s a different team, so the chemistry is at the same level, but it’s not the same chemistry.” Whether the Celtics add guys such as free agent Rasheed Wallace in the offseason or lose players for a stretch because of a recent influx of injuries, the game plan doesn’t change. “There are different guys in the lineup here and there but what we’re doing is the same,” says Allen.
And it all stars with respect. “The one thing that we’ve always done as a team here is respect everybody regardless of what their record is…Nobody goes without a win in this league, said Allen, “So the teams that we’ve played in the last three years, everybody’s looking to play us and get their team turned around against us because they’re getting the best speech in the locker room every night. For us, we got to always remember that we are the hunted.”
And one team on the hunt is the Hawks. Faced with the need to get right after a season-high four-game slide, point guard Mike Bibby hosted a players-only meeting. “It was just a matter of making sure we stayed on the same page and we stuck together,” said center Al Horford, “We didn’t want to create separation on the team and we had to make sure we were all on the same page. It was a brief meeting and it has seemed to work for us.”
After not losing the trap game vs. New Jersey, the Hawks would face the Celtics, a team with lingering significance because of 2008’s 7-game 1st round series. While the Hawks are no longer the underdogs that gave the eventual champions a scare, they still don’t have any rings to rest on.
“I think it’s their depth and their experience that makes them so dangerous,” said Horford. Before naming anyone from the “Big 3,” Horford starts with bigs Rasheed Wallace and Kendrick Perkins as the difference makers. Horford goes on to mention Garnett, but says that the team is still solid with him out.
What Horford says is evident on the court. Wallace transitions easily from starter to sub, and looks as comfortable posting up under the basket as shooting from the perimeter. That kind of depth is scary, and as far as the Celtics are concerned, the Hawks have it too.
“They add a guy like Jamal Crawford who gives them an explosive scorer off the bench to go along with their starting five, whose been together for a few years now,” said forward Paul Pierce, “you can’t help but to get better and you’ve seen it in them.”
“They’ve grown, they’ve got the experience…they’re definitely one of the better teams in the east,” said Allen.
When the Celtics and Hawks faced each other on Friday, it was the coming together of old teams with new agendas. “I think it is a statement game,” said Hawks forward Josh Smith pregame, “we just got to go out there and look at it as a regular game.” Horford mentioned the need to retain focus at all times because of Boston’s consistency.
It’s this consistency that proves Boston’s mental toughness—a trait the Hawks don’t display consistently. Despite being visibly outplayed by the Hawks for the entire second half on Friday, the Celtics brought the game to within two in the 4th quarter. “All the things that went wrong for us, we still got to the point where we had a chance to win the game,” said Allen.
Asked if it was frustrating to outplay the Celtics yet see the scoreboard showing them right in the game, Hawks guard Joe Johnson simply stated, “We’ve been in that position before.”
It is this maturity—a quality that comes with experience—that will ultimately benefit the Hawks. Atlanta has seen how they match up to championship contenders and the qualities it takes both on and off the court to win a title.
The Hawks defeated Boston 93-85, their second win against the Celtics this season. Ironically, the mentality against Boston was derived from an experience the Hawks had with a team they have yet to prove they can beat. Guard Jamal Crawford said, “I think the meltdown we had against Cleveland here (December 29), we went eight minutes without scoring, I thought that helped us. You can’t adjust to something or make something better unless you go through it the first time…we just try not to make the same mistake twice.”
With an outlook like that, even the Hawks show a little ubuntu at times. If only they could show it consistently.