Reading between the lines after Celtics' closed-door meeting

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BOSTON — Two days before Festivus, the Celtics held their own “Airing of Grievances,” with a closed-door meeting following their loss to the Milwaukee Bucks on Friday night.  

Typically, reporters are allowed inside the team’s locker room about 15 minutes following the conclusion of a game but it was a 35-minute delay as the Celtics' locker room remained closed while players and coaches assessed the state of a team that has lost three in a row and sits fifth in the Eastern Conference at 18-13.

What was said in that closed door meeting?

"It’s none of y’all's business, honestly,” Kyrie Irving said at the start of his chat with reporters. 

So we’re left to read between the lines a bit after Irving, Jaylen Brown, and Jayson Tatum (finally) took turns in front of the microphones. Here are some of the quotes that caught our attention and thoughts on what was being implied.

"I’ll be the first to admit I’ve dealt with my own challenges to be more consistent in the defensive end, do things for myself that would be more beneficial for our team. To be honest, I’m not playing the minutes I would want, the role I would want, that I, selfishly, would want for myself. That all goes on the back burner to being patient with what I have to do to grow as a leader of this team and help these other young guys to be more prepared for what they’ll encounter as they get older in this league and are going through right now. That’s part of the deal that I have, as opposed to how many shots I get or how successful I am. It’s how successful we are as a team. I want to make sure these guys are comfortable out there, and it’s more their success as much as mine. That’s an important thing, being consistent with that and patient with them.” — Irving

From this vantage point, this was the most telling quote of the night. Irving highlights the sacrifices he’s made this season, including his efforts to be a better defender, all while embracing some of the lowest minutes of his career given the team’s hopes for a long season.

Irving hinted that, like any star, he might yearn to play 40 minutes and score 40 points per night. But that’s not what would help this team the most. The Celtics play their best basketball when they share the ball and everyone contributes so he’s put a heightened emphasis on getting his teammates involved. But Irving seems frustrated that others are not so eager to sacrifice themselves for the greater good of the team, which he hinted at in his next answer.

”Obviously, some selfish play out there where we have some really talented guys but we’re better as a team sharing the basketball, and if it’s late in the shot clock that’s when we start shooting our [isolation] plays, as opposed to, if we have nothing in transition, shooting with 16 or 17 on the clock. Or shooting a fadeaway, something like that. I get caught up in that as well. For me, it’s a hard challenge because there’s a balance I have. I literally can do anything I want out there, but at the same time, it’s what can I do for my teammates to be more successful. I have to be very conscious of that. — Irving

This seems a direct message to Boston’s youngest players — Terry Rozier, Jayson Tatum, and Jaylen Brown — about the conflict they’re facing this season, trying to maintain their star status from last year’s playoff run all while accepting diminished roles with the return of two healthy All-Stars. Irving appears frustrated that those players are settling for poor shots at times — whether that’s early-clock jumpers or isolation fadeaways — and he wants the team to work harder for better shots.

The Celtics are not a very good isolation team. According to play-type data logged by Synergy Sports, Boston ranks in the top half of the league (14th) in total isolation plays this season but sits 27th in points per isolation play (0.785), ahead of only the Knicks, Heat, and Hawks.

Seventy-three of Boston’s 251 isolation possessions belong to Tatum, per Synergy data. He’s averaging just 0.795 points per play in that situation, which ranks him in the 38th percentile among all NBA players. Even Irving has only attempted 67 ISO attempts and, remember when ISO Mook was a popular nickname for isolation-loving Marcus Morris, well he’s only attempted 45 isolation possessions all season and is one of Boston’s most consistent offensive presences.

Irving doesn’t absolve himself from blame. There are times when he forces shots as well. But he wants the Celtics to be smarter with possessions. That means Brown has to be smarter in transition and not try to force tough layups. It means Rozier can’t settle for tough fadeaway jumpers early in the clock.

An example from Friday: The Celtics were down 13 early in the second quarter with a non-Kyrie lineup on the floor of Rozier, Tatum, Marcus Smart, Gordon Hayward, and Robert Williams. Hayward drew a crowd driving from the wing then kicked to Smart in the corner, who started to whip the ball around the perimeter. 

Rozier received the pass at the top and, with an extra pass, would have found Brown with a quality look beyond the 3-point arc. Instead, Rozier put the ball on the floor, dribbled past his defender but, finding a crowd in the paint, settled for a contested fadeaway in the lane. It rolled off the rim.

Next trip down, Rozier again passed up an opportunity to make an extra pass to Brown and instead put up a 3-pointer as two Bucks rushed to contest. It wasn’t a bad shot — but Brown’s would have been better. Rozier’s attempt missed badly. 

Tatum followed with a turnover on a bad lob attempt to Williams, then settled for a long baseline fadeaway that didn’t fall. Exacerbating matters, Tatum got whistled for a technical for arguing about a lack of a whistle soon after.

All of a sudden the Bucks were up 20 and Tatum, Brown, and Rozier were all pulled with 8:31 to play in the quarter.

If any of the young players felt singled out by the closed-door meeting, they seemed to understand the bigger message of working together for the team. Neither Brown nor Tatum expressed the sort of frustration that might have come if they were spotlighted for the team’s struggles. The message seemed to be more that everyone has to sacrifice and play with more effort.

“We just have to play harder. The last three games I don’t think we played as hard as we did the previous eight when we were winning. Playing hard usually translates to winning, so we just have to do that.” — Tatum

The Celtics talk a lot about consistency and cohesion. As Tatum stressed here, sometimes it feels more like they simply need to be willing to work harder. It’s no coincidence that Boston’s success came after Smart and Morris elevated to the starting lineup, injecting some energy and grit into the first unit. When this team plays hard, it plays well. When it tries to get by on talent alone, it struggles. They cannot downshift their intensity.

"It’s the team trying to get on the same page, get everything together, trying to do something special, trying to make sure we’re all clicking on the same cylinders. … It's not about me. It's about us, so we're trying to be a unit, either we're going to be all in or we're not. I didn't take anything personally from it, but we all got to be better." — Brown

Closed-door meetings tend to carry a negative connotation and certainly, Boston’s struggles prompted this postgame conversation. But these can be positive occurrences if the players are willing to commit to learning from them. 

The Celtics clearly recognize they are underachieving. Yes, they’ve had obstacles in terms of the schedule and injuries, but there’s no reason this team shouldn’t be playing to a higher level — and playing that way more consistently — than what we’ve seen through the first 31 games.

Ultimately, it’s one thing to talk about wanting to change bad habits. It’s another to actually do it. The Celtics get a visit from a Charlotte team that already beat them last month behind a spectacular individual performance (43 points) from Kemba Walker. Boston has to show it learned from that loss, that it learned from the loss the Bucks, and bring the necessary focus and energy.

Are players willing to actually sacrifice for this team to reach its potential? The next few games will be mighty telling to whether these Celtics truly want to work to be great. Because if they don’t want to work and sacrifice, this pattern of underachieving will simply continue.

And no amount of closed-door meetings can fix that.

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