50 Wins Ain’t Shhhhh!

By Michael Tillery

The Celtics picked up their 50th win Monday by defeating the upstart Philadelphia 76ers 100-86 and breaking the Sixers home winning streak at eight, while the C’s are on a streak of nine overall themselves. You know the players were going to downplay the season milestone. Each said something to the effect of not knowing how many wins they had, or “I don’t check the stats” and it’ll be something I’ll be able to appreciate after the season.

The thing is, I believe them. This team is no joke. They aren’t here to play games, make friends, show off…none of that. They have the perfect mixture of talent here. Ray Allen is at one end of seriousness, Paul Pierce is in the middle and KG is…well KG.

This is the most professional locker room I’ve been in–in any sport. The Pistons are close, but things are a lot more loose there because of that seven foot off-the-chain Philly boy Rasheed Wallace. Three decorated kings in here. There’s no denying it. Each commands a certain space of respect among their teammates as well as the media. KG or Pierce might appear to be the leaders, but the man in the locker room is definitely Jesus Shuttlesworth. He takes no trash from no one. Cats were afraid to approach, so of course I swooped on in and got exactly what I wanted to the point that Boston’s PR people had to kick me the hell out after he closed up shop. Ray also has this old school stroll that’s crazy to see. He takes his time, but I guess he’s earned it.

He answered my questions right and exact. No bs, no filler, all professional.

These cats differ from the aforementioned Pistons and have a sense of urgency because they haven’t won anything yet. Sam Cassell is the lone loose entity here most likely because he has not one, but two rings. Dude is also glad to be out of L.A. and judging the Clips season, can you blame him?

Pre-game, everyone else was focused almost to the point of paranoid military tension.

After Boston disposed of Philly, things loosened up a bit, and it’s going to be interesting to see if they can actually pull this off and win the whole thing.

During Mo Cheeks post game press conference, I overheard someone in the Philly brass proclaim the Celtics as the best team in the Eastern Conference.

I thought to myself…Damn, we’re in Philly and they are saying this?

I asked Cheeks what he would tell the younger players on the Sixers, to keep their heads up so maybe they can get over the hump in the future to win a “big game” like this? He offered: “As time moves on, they’ll play in more big games like this. It’s nothing you can say like you gotta do this or you gotta do that. You have to do the same things you’ve been doing every game and don’t change anything different. This was a big game for us–it wasn’t a big game for Boston. They get everybody’s big game because they’re so good and everyone wants to beat them. As time moves on, they’ll (younger Sixers) know how to play in these type games.”

I wonder who in the east, when it’s all said and done, will be standing in the way of Boston getting into the Finals. Cleveland? Detroit?

There is no rivalry here yet with Philly because Boston is simply a lot better. The Sixers never recovered from a 15-0 Boston start. Everything was a jumper..the kind that go swiccup! Philly tied the game at 44 for like a second. Everything was down hill after that and Boston cruised after halftime. I will say, this was the loudest sellout crowd since Iverson won MVP in 2001. It’s good to see the crowd behind the Sixers for once. Things are definitely changing here.

I wanted to document Boston’s season up to this point for after season reflection and asked 4 starters plus Sam Cassell–Kendrick Perkins was busy doing a feature with someone from the NBA–some questions you might want answered.

MT: Much has been said about there needing to be a veteran point guard to come in and shore up the position. Do you see the signing of Sam Cassell as a boost or a detriment to your development?

Rajon Rondo: Definitely a help. A guy like Sam has been around for a long time. He has championships on his belt. I’m definitely looking to learn a lot from him. I don’t feel like it’s a hurt to my career at all.

MT: You are very athletic and attack the rim whenever you get a chance. What impedes you from taking your man off the dribble every time down the floor?

Rajon Rondo: Just being disciplined. I don’t want to step out of my role and be on one page and the other four guys on another. That could mess the chemistry up as well as the trust. I will do what’s best for the team.

MT: 4 on 1 break…the three vets running with you. Who gets the ball?

Rajon Rondo: 4 on 1? I’m throwing it to KG for the slam. If not, I’m going looking to either side for the three with Ray and Paul. I got a lot of options (smiling). I’m trying to get the dunk first to get the crowd into it. They feed off KG’s energy.

MT: Playing with again, three Hall of Famers, do you try to soak up the time you have with all this talent? Their time is limited and you are just beginning. What are you learning from this experience?

Rajon Rondo: I’m not taking anything for granted. They make the game a lot easier for me. When they are done playing and no longer my teammates the game won’t be as difficult as it might be assumed just coming into the league. I will take full advantage of this opportunity.

MT: I don’t want to say failure, but is this season a wash if you do not win the championship?

Rajon Rondo: I don’t think so. I don’t really think it’s a wash. It will be disappointing to me. We have very high expectations. We expect nothing less than a championship. We have to go out there and play hard and respect our principles. If we get beat, then we get beat. We’ll just have to come back next year and get better at what we do best.

MT: What did you learn the most from your coach at Kentucky, Tubby Smith?

Rajon Rondo: Man, I learned to be disciplined on defense more than anything. I want to be known as a defensive stopper and will be working hard to become just that. He’s one of my favorite coaches that I’ve played for. I’ve got a lot of them and I love every one of my coaches, but he was the one. He was very hard on me and as a result, I’ve learned a lot and I respect him as a man and as a coach.

MT: Sam, what have you learned over the length of your career?

Sam Cassell: Man, patience. Basketball is a game you aren’t supposed to rush. You are always finding ways to figure it out. When you figure it out, you got it beat.

MT: How important was it for you to get a sense of winning back into your psyche?

Sam Cassell: Aw man…It ain’t nothing like winning in this league. You want to have fun in life, so winning makes everything easier. I understand what it takes to win. I can’t wait to get over the adjustment I’m experiencing right now. (He was 0-2 with two airballs and 4 fouls in 5:25 minutes of playing time)

MT: You came into the league and there is Dream while you were a rookie and then Drexler your second year. Obvious question, but were you a little bit spoiled?

Sam Cassell: Yeah, damn right. Those guys are HOF ball players in this league. They made it easier for me. They made the game understandable and showed me how it was to be played.

MT: Ray, what’s it like to finally be in a position to compete seriously for an NBA championship?

Ray Allen: It’s no different. I don’t judge this any differently than I have the rest of my NBA career. It’s a job. We have games we have to play and I have to be prepared the same way. You just have to play a little bit longer. In a sense it’s harder, because we play against the best effort every night. We get teams’ best shot. For me, it’s staying ready and always being connected with the goals of the team. The game doesn’t really change much. We have a better chance of winning every night, but it’s the same stuff.

MT: What’s it like playing with two probable Hall of Fame players?

Ray Allen: It’s a consistency that’s there. You know it’s gonna be there. The burden is not on my shoulders every night because it’s spread evenly. There’s definitely an intimidating factor. Some guys figure they might have a night off, but now you have to play hard at every position. Rondo and some of the other young guys have gotten a lot better, so you can’t attack a certain position on this team.

MT: Do you ever reflect back on your career?

Ray Allen: Not really. It’s like anybody else’s job. You never go back and say… Hmm I wrote a good story back then, right? You know that seventh one?

MT: Yeah you’re got a point there. OK, a better question would be how do you put your experiences in it’s proper career perspective?

Ray Allen: You remember the stuff you’ve experienced. The people, the relationships, the places you’ve traveled, all the while playing basketball. I think about what basketball has done for me and the things I’ve been able to do. It makes you work a little bit harder to try and prolong this as far as you can take it and also set you up for your next thing.

MT: What have you learned from Doc Rivers? Do the ten year plus vets still learn from coaches? Do they inspire? What?

Ray Allen: I think for most of the guys who’ve been in the league for ten plus years… It’s interesting… I think he’s learned a lot from us. We all have different traits… different talents, so he’s learning how our talents affect his team. What we have to do is kind of understand what he wants. That’s the one thing you have to learn. You have to buy into a system the coaching staff has put together. You have a group of guys going into a tunnel at the same point, at the same time. It’s all direction. It’s all a voice and it’s all understanding what the coaches have put together. We have to pull all of this together.

MT: I asked Rashard (Lewis) about how you personally affected his development and he mentioned your professionalism. Is that something you offer to the younger players on this team? Is it the veteran player’s responsibility to teach those on the come up? This is the most professional locker room I’ve ever been in and even though you seem reticent, there is definitely a sense of your impact in this right here.

Ray Allen: It’s a great responsibility. We as kids growing up learn a great deal from those playing in the league. Every player I ever watched growing up doing an interview always had a suit on. They always spoke well. They always conducted their business the way it needed to be conducted. I didn’t pick one person in particular…

MT: You just read my mind…

Ray Allen: Yeah? But, Michael Jordan was obviously one influence because he always had a nice suit on. Me, my friends and family always talked about how clean he was. He was clean to a T. That man is worth a lot of money. It’s not just about money, it’s also about how you carry yourself with great fashion. It’s a different generation. You try to affect them and teach them how to be a professional. Some don’t like it. They are going to continue what they want to do and dress how they are gonna dress, so I think there’s a small generational disconnect. It still doesn’t stop the veteran players from impacting the game. Guys have to take care of the game.

MT: This potentially could become the rivalry it once was because your team has become so good, so fast and the Sixers are on the up and up. Can you talk about that Philly/Boston thing because of their current modicum of success?

Ray Allen: I really don’t know about any rivalry. I know what’s happen over years past. This is my first year here. You start to get a feel of what teams are beating up on each other trying to get into the playoffs. The next year you get a sense of bad blood in your mind because of the previous year’s playoffs. That’s how it starts, but right now it’s kind of new for me.

MT: Just a question I’ve always wanted to ask you because the game was so damn good. Do you ever look back on the 1996 Big East Championship against Allen Iverson and Georgetown?

Ray Allen: Nah, everything from that moment then propels us to where we are today.

MT: How do you get through what may be construed to some as a complacent period of the season Paul?

Paul Pierce: I haven’t had any complacency. (Looks around like I’ve just asked the dumbest question) It hasn’t been about that with us. We enjoy every moment of the game and we enjoy each other when it’s time to practice. We haven’t had any lull in the season. You can see it on the guys faces every time we are around one another.

MT: What’s it like playing with two other guys that can put the ball in the basket at any time? Was there a similar confidence while you were at Kansas?

Paul Pierce: I played on a pretty deep college team but to do it in the NBA at the ultimate level is great. You have future Hall of Famers. I don’t have to carry such a load. You can jump on their shoulders and ride it out. Most nights since I’ve been a Celtic, as I go, we go. It was tough for us to get a win if I wasn’t playing well. It’s not the case right now.

On being banged up last year, it’s affect and if it was planned: “That injury changed the course of Celtic history (mad laughter). I wouldn’t be talking like this if I didn’t break my foot a year ago. I planned that. Freak injury, nobody saw it.”

MT: KG, where is your intensity drawn from? It’s something that seems to rub off on your teammates. You seem more determined this year than even your MVP year.

Kevin Garnett: My mom is intense man. My grandmother is intense. I have an older sister whose intense. We all come from the grind. We are all taught to work for everything we have. I haven’t thought of anything different from this point. You go at something balls out. 100%, 110% each night. That’s it you know? I’m a country boy. I work in the yard, chop wood, cut grass. I’m from hard work.

MT: If and when you do this…If and when. What are going to be some of your thoughts?

Kevin Garnett: I don’t know. Come and ask me that when we win it. You know? I’ve had the opportunity to be blessed this year. If we have the opportunity to win it, please, please come ask me that question. (Smiling) You coming?

MT: I’ll be there.