When Boston Celtics coach Brad Stevens is asked about how his team has ascended to a position where it is competing for the No. 1 seed in the Eastern Conference without necessarily boasting the superstar talent that most top teams possess, he often references how relentlessly motivated his players are.
“We have a lot of guys with chips on their shoulders,” Stevens said recently. “And that’s been a really good thing for us.”
The day after the Celtics expressed frustrations about the way the Suns helped Devin Booker get to 70 points in Boston’s 130-120 triumph on Friday night at TD Garden, we keep going back to Stevens’ quote about chips on shoulders.
Boston thoroughly dominated Friday’s game and yet players were clearly frustrated by allowing such a historic scoring performance. What’s more, Boston players were displeased by the way Suns coach Earl Watson unapologetically called timeouts and intentionally fouled in the final minute in order to allow Booker a chance to further run up his point total.
Celtics players, including Isaiah Thomas, largely praised Booker’s effort but weren’t bashful while noting they were irked by the way the Suns extended the game despite having no chance to truly rally. That frustration manifested itself on social media when Jae Crowder needled Phoenix players about a photo they took while celebrating Booker’s big night in the visitors’ locker room.
Booker fired back while writing, “you can’t guard me,” and, on this night, even if defense was a bit of an afterthought once Boston went up by as much as 26, he wasn’t wrong.
These two teams won’t play again for as much as 12 months and it seems unlikely that there will be much additional fallout by then. The bigger takeaway, from this view, is that the Celtics keep finding unique ways to develop animosity with the rest of the league this season. And it’s clearly a byproduct of all the chip-on-their-shoulder guys in the locker room who never stop feeling disrespected.
The Celtics already have a well-documented dislike with the Washington Wizards, in large part because of an after-the-buzzer dustup between Crowder and John Wall. Thomas has beefed with Atlanta’s Dennis Schroder enough that Thomas pledged in January that he will no longer talk about Schroder because he’s “not even on the level I’m trying to be on.”
Celtics players have strong opinions and they’re not often bashful about sharing them. Crowder, who did not address reporters after Friday’s game, has a habit of lashing out via social media. Heck, he’s sparred with his own fan base after noting how he felt “disrespected” when Boston fans cheered for Jazz forward Gordon Hayward in January.
Thomas and Crowder, in particular, seem to bottle up even the tiniest amount of disrespect or doubt and use it as fuel during the season. Maybe it’s not surprising that they are two of the more vital parts of Boston’s success this season.
There is a chance the Celtics could surge to the No. 1 seed in the East before the end of the regular season and no matter how much national recognition they receive for the strides made this year, it’s more likely that the team will rally around anything that suggests it is still an underdog in the postseason.
Celtics players do a good job of hearing what they want to hear. They’ve had a remarkable season, particularly given the injuries the team has endured, and seem to be playing some of their best basketball as the playoffs draw near.
But there’s no motivation in that. So the Celtics will continue to seek out every bit of disrespect and hope it pushes them to new heights.