“Nobody was really talking about us, you know?”
Kemba Walker is seated in the Optum Lounge of the Auerbach Center, where the Boston Celtics practice, thinking back on this summer. When he was in China for the 2019 FIBA World Cup, along with Marcus Smart, Jaylen Brown and Jayson Tatum, the four of them discussed the doubt placed on their team at home.
“Granted, they lost a few guys who made this team go,” Walker continues, “but I still felt like we would be pretty good just because of the talent that I knew we had and how much the young guys wanted it. Guys like Smart, JB and JT, I could tell how much they wanted to become better players and how disappointed they were about last year. Those kinds of things played a part in how I felt like we were going to be this season.”
Of course, last season informed a lot of the early projections. The Cs were favorites to come out of the East in ’18-19 but didn’t live up to expectations, finishing as the No. 4 seed and getting bounced in the second round of the playoffs. That fact, combined with key losses in free agency, bred skepticism. But skepticism is OK. In many ways, it’s welcomed.
There’s less pressure in being the underdog. And once the wounds of a disheartening year began to heal, those remaining could find the positives in it. Sometimes, there have to be lows to be highs. The group had to learn from their mistakes. They used failure and doubt as further motivation, and they set out to prove everyone wrong.
“We were just talking about what we wanted to do this season, how we wanted to come out and really shut people up,” Smart recalls of those conversations in China. “We just knew everybody was going to doubt us. So for us, it was just coming out and being able to show what we were capable of.”
“I’ve got sunshine…”
“…on a cloudy day”
Jaylen Brown and Marcus Smart have spontaneously broken into a duet of The Temptations’ “My Girl.” They harmonize and trade lines, singing into the shotgun microphone set up for our video shoot. It’s so seamless that it sounds rehearsed.
“When it’s cold outside…”
“…I’ve got the month of May”
Spirits are high at the newly constructed Auerbach Center. It’s early January and the team has entered a new decade near the top of the Eastern Conference. As of this writing, they are 31-15 and 18-5 at TD Garden.
There’s a laidback, relaxed vibe to the shoot. Guys arrive one by one, led by the veteran Gordon Hayward, rocking their green and gold City Edition jerseys. They joke with each other and gang up on one of the equipment managers, who walks on set in a full uniform.
“That’s how you know you don’t hoop, because nobody wears their socks to their calves like that,” Smart says.
“You got to stop skipping leg day, Andy,” Brown chimes in.
“He’s skipping every day.”
The returning players will freely admit, there was, at times, an absence of joy in the locker room last season. It was due in part to a reluctance to open up about personal issues outside of basketball. No one wanted to share, and the chemistry and happiness of the whole team suffered because of it. Bottling their problems didn’t work, so they’ve taken the opposite approach this year.
“We’re happy [now]. Everybody’s actually talking to one another,” Smart says. “Last year, we didn’t really talk to each other as much as we do now for whatever reason. Everybody was dealing with their own things personally, so it was kind of hard to sit down with one another and really listen because you were dealing with your own things and you were trying to figure out things for yourself.”
Marcus was coping with the death of his mother. Gordon was fighting back from his gruesome ankle injury. Jayson wasn’t making the jump he anticipated for himself and dealt with outside scrutiny. Coming off an impressive 2018 postseason run, Jaylen had to take a step back and battled anxiety and self-doubt.
“It’s kind of hard to listen to somebody else’s problems when you have your own,” Smart continues. “This year, everything we have—internally and externally—it’s out in the open. We’re always around each other, laughing and smiling. Just trying to really enjoy being around each other.”
By his own admission, Marcus is the team comedian.
“He’s just nonstop, he always got jokes” Tatum describes. “Or often—I ain’t gonna say nonstop. It’s just often.”
“I bring joy to the locker room, that’s what he wanted to say,” Smart responds.
“That ain’t what I wanted to say.”
“Is it my turn?” Brown asks. He seems eager to share his opinion about Marcus. “No comment. I plead the fifth.”
Smart will fire back, naturally. He pokes fun at Jayson’s beard (“He finally got it to connect!”) and Jaylen’s aloofness (“You be in the sunken place”). He confidently assures everyone that he’ll win a shooting contest. The others lightheartedly accuse him of messing up the backdrop for our photos—it’s suddenly crumpled and folding—and he objects.
“We’re a fun group,” Walker says. “I don’t think a lot of people understand how much fun we have with each other. We love being around each other, love playing basketball with each other, love helping each other get better.
“One through 15, we all get along. It’s just a really fun environment to be a part of. Nobody wants to come into work and it not be good vibes, but that’s not the case here. We have really high character guys. Everybody has one goal, everybody wants to win, everybody wants to become better players. It just makes things easier.”
The core of that group, featured on the cover above, has meshed easily. It’s a combination of veterans and youth, of reserved personalities and, in Marcus’ words, more “off the wall” ones. They complement and balance each other out.
On the floor, they are versatile and dynamic, capable of playing multiple positions and filling various roles.
“It makes us really tough to guard,” says Hayward. “I think it’s a team that can make adjustments and morph in a game. That makes us pretty special.”
“I think we’re all interchangeable so it’s kind of hard for teams to game plan because you never know what position somebody might be in,” Brown explains. “They might be bringing the ball up, they might be in the corner, they might be coming off the action. It makes it a little bit harder to defend when everybody’s interchangeable.”
All five of them have the ability to take over a game—some by scoring, some by playmaking, some by defending. There’s no strategy as to who will be “the guy” on a particular night—they just react to who gets the hot hand. When Jayson has it going, for example, they feed him the ball and slide into different roles. They can shape shift in ways most other rosters can’t. With Jayson or whoever shouldering the load offensively, the rest of the squad has more energy to invest on the opposite end. Boston currently has the No. 3 defense in the NBA.
“It takes a lot of pressure off me, not having to do too much [offensively,]” says Walker, who carried much of the weight during his tenure in Charlotte. “I definitely think it allows me to tap into different parts of my game.”
Kemba, a three-time All-Star, is averaging 22.3 points and 5.0 assists. Normally soft-spoken, he perks up when asked to talk about his new teammates.
“Marcus, he’s the heart and soul of our team. He’s just the ultimate competitor. Always gets us going, always gets our energy going. We definitely feed off of him tremendously.”
“Gordon has that veteran leadership and to me, he’s the X factor for us. As Gordon goes, it just makes our team that much better. He’s definitely a very special talent and I’m just happy to see him back to his comfort zone. I know it’s been a rough couple of years for him and I’m just happy that he’s back to his old self.”
“JT, the ability that he has for his age  is just scary. As he gets older and matures, he’s just going to continue to get better because he works so hard and he wants to be great. That’s something that you can’t take away from him. He wants it. That’s one of the special attributes about him—how much he really does want to be a special player in this League and he definitely will. He’ll be a top-five player in this League one day, for sure.”
“Jaylen, he’s a guy who’s worked extremely hard at his game. And this season, you can see how much it’s paying off. He can do it all. He can score, he can pass, he can rebound, he can shoot. He’s fearless. He’s a competitor. And he still has so much room for improvement. He’s going to be a special talent, which he already is to me.”
JT and Jaylen are prime examples of the turnaround for this franchise. They’re making the leaps that many predicted, only a bit delayed. Tatum is posting career-highs in points (21.5) and rebounds (6.9). The same goes for Brown (20.1 points, 6.6 rebounds), who’s also shooting 50 percent from the field and 39 percent from three. They’ve been spreading the floor and understanding when, where and how to pick their spots. And, as Smart adds, “JT finally grew out the rest of his beard, so that was good for us.”
Both have benefitted from their previous struggles. They learned a lot through the difficult times and have relished the absence of pressure this go-around.
“I think just hooping has been a key for us, instead of thinking about so much of the stuff that we had to think about last year,” Brown says. “Just play basketball and let the cards fall where they may. This year has been totally different, but I think we all needed last year. I think everybody right here [he gestures to Smart, Tatum and Hayward] has gotten better through the experiences of last year.”
“We understand how last year went,” Tatum says. “Obviously not trying to have a repeat of that. I think this year focusing more on ourselves and the guys in the locker room and not paying attention to the media and kind of enjoying being the underdog, whereas last year we were expected to win a championship.”
The strong bond between the two young cornerstones has continued to grow as well, even if it’s veiled in sarcasm.
Jaylen: “I ain’t even like this dude.”
Jayson: “I’m sick of him.”
Jaylen: “Nah, JT cool.”
Jayson: “I know I’m cool.”
Jaylen: “He’s aight, you know what I mean? I think we got a few similarities but we got a lot of differences at the same time. But it kind of, like, works. I don’t disrespect him for none of the stuff that he’s into—whatever that may be.”
Jayson: “What am I into? [laughs]”
Walker is the new piece to this puzzle, but also perhaps the biggest one. He’s fit in perfectly thus far. Like several of his teammates, he identifies as an underdog, someone perpetually slept on. He sees a lot of himself in Marcus, Gordon, Jayson and Jaylen. Suffice it to say, the marriage has worked.
“I think that’s why we get along so well, because we all have one goal,” Walker says. “We want to win and we want to become great players. We’re all gym rats. We’re all always in the gym. So yeah, that’s what makes us so special.”
All around the Auerbach Center are reminders of the Celtics’ storied past. Large images of former franchise legends (Bill Russell, Bob Cousy, Larry Bird/Kevin McHale, Ray Allen/Paul Pierce/Kevin Garnett) adorn the walls. Banners (a lot of them) hang from the ceiling over the practice court. The leprechaun logo, which has become synonymous with winning, is everywhere—at the bottom of recovery pools, on workout equipment, blown up on the exterior of the facility, etc.
The long and winding road has led here—to the Optum Lounge on this January afternoon, where Jaylen and Marcus are entertaining the room with karaoke duets. Armed with confidence and free from burdens, the Celtics have established themselves as contenders once again.
“Look at the League now, the talent is more dispersed,” says Brown. “I think this year is kind of unique. It hasn’t been like this in a while. So I think that it’s anybody’s game. We probably don’t realize how close we can be to getting the job done.”
“Certainly the Celtics have a long history and tradition of success. You come here to compete at the highest level, and that means all the way to the Finals,” Hayward says. “So it’s been a goal since I’ve gotten here, definitely a goal of ours this year. I don’t think that as a team we look at that every day. We just look to get better and focus on the task at hand.
“And like Jaylen said, let the cards fall where they may.”
Alex Squadron is an Associate Editor at SLAM. Follow him on Twitter @asquad510.
Photos by Matthew Coughlin and via Getty.