Doc Rivers does a great job keeping his eyes on his own work. He almost never gets baited into publicly criticizing another team or playing media games with the other NBA powerhouses in Miami, L.A. and Orlando.
Phil Jackson is, of course, notorious for his comfort using the media to play “mind-games,” which I put in quotes only because they never seem particularly sophisticated to me, or even that calculated. He just seems to speak his mind and that inevitably involves breaks in decorum. He gives great quote, but is he any more effective at motivating his own team than Rivers, because his verbal volleys are thrown within earshot of a microphone? I doubt it.
Still, Jackson’s words come with the weight of his achievements, and this week, on his Straight Talk Express, the topic was the Lakers’ two key Eastern Conference rivals, the Heat and the Celtics.
“I personally don’t think they [the Heat] can get by Boston,” Jackson said. “I think Boston is too good a team. I think a team is still going to win.
“But there’s a chance that [the Heat] … can maybe round themselves into a team by that time and [win].
“Boston is older and they have to go through the rest of the schedule without having some kind of breakdown of players. [Ray] Allen and [Kendrick] Perkins, etc., they are just really a good team.
“But there’s nothing like the great athletic skill and dynamism that [James and Wade] have and [Chris] Bosh is a terrific player in his own right. There’s no doubt about their individual skills.”
When apprised of Jackson’s comments, Celtics coach Doc Rivers smiled and said, “Well, in that case, Phil is a genius. And I hope he’s right. But there’s a lot of games to be played and we’ll see how that all works out.”
Inherent in Jackson’s comments is the respect he has for the Celtics, who took his team down in 2008, who gave the Lakers all they could handle in 2010 and who loom as the biggest obstacle on the way to a possible Laker three-peat in 2011. Plus, of course, you’ll remember the odd comment from the Zen Master the last few years about the lack of toughness his team has shown.
The Celtics bring toughness in spades. Rough, tough and physical is what the C’s do, especially come the playoffs. And though they’re willing to punt the odd game to a lesser opponent out of sheer disinterest, they show great mental focus (read: “toughness”) come the second season.
Otis Smith would beg to differ on that last point.
The Orlando GM made some curious comments to the Orlando Sentinel about his view of the Celtics’ alleged non-toughness. Behold:
Sentinel: One could argue the Celtics are tough.
Smith: They act tough. They’re not really tough. They act tough.
Smith: I think the season can help you with that, quite honestly. I think the tough loss to Oklahoma City helps. I think the tough loss to New Orleans helps. I think playing games where they’re close games helps your toughness, your ability to win games down the stretch and close games out. Even the games we’ve won, we’ve had to close teams out. That’s showing toughness and resolve. To say that we’re going to go “Aarrgghh!”? No one does that in this league. At the end of the day, they’re all young men. They’re going to go out and play. One team is going to execute better than the other. That’s what it comes down to. It doesn’t come down to that kind of toughness.”
Smith is reacting negatively to the Celtics’ on-court posturing and trash-talking, which is fair, in the sense that it’s often so wildly over the top, it has earned the C’s a reputation as one of the most disliked teams amongst other players. And what Celtics fan hasn’t cringed at some point when Kevin Garnett has incited a confrontation and then slipped away, hands up, professing innocence? It’s disingenuous, if you’re grading on the scale of actual toughness.
But we’re not doing that, right?
In Smith’s last line, he makes the point that winning games is not about being street fighters but being able to close games out when the pressure is on, and the season is on the line. It’s about being able to overcome KG’s antics.
Which is where we bring up the Magic’s dissolution in the Eastern Conference Finals last year.
The series went six games but that’s deceptive as anyone who watched the games knows. The Celtics ran over the Magic before letting them back in, just a little bit. The C’s had Orlando turned inside out mentally, and really, you could see the Magic’s hangover from that loss the first two months of this season, which is why Smith went and rebuilt his team last month.
The new-look Magic have something to prove. Because for all his awesome-ness (and that is the right word), there are legitimate questions outside Florida about whether Dwight Howard, last seen giggling at Garnett as the Magic lost to the C’s on Monday night, can be the best player in a Celtics-Magic playoff series. Or overcome a Kobe Bryant-led Lakers.
Does Howard have the qualities Smith hopes his team will embody?
Does Gilbert Arenas? Does Hedo Turkoglu?
These questions don’t exist about Garnett, Paul Pierce, and Ray Allen.
For a reason.
The Magic are locked into a D12-Hedo-Agent Zero core. We’ll see how tough it proves come playoff time.
(I’m not going to address the 2009 Celtics’ playoff loss to the Magic, because that team was lacking KG, which should speak for itself).