It was dang near midnight when I hopped into my car and headed home after watching the Celtics beat the Warriors in Game 1 of The Finals.
As I turned the car on, Sly and the Family Stone’s “Thank You (Falettinme Be Mice Elf Agin)” was just starting, and it seemed to be the perfect tune for where the Celtics find themselves right now.
It has taken a long time for the Celtics to return to The Finals — twelve years have passed and seven other teams have won titles in the interim. It’s been nine years since Ainge blew up the old core and started over from scratch.
Those of us with Norwegian ancestry have been known to while away the long winter nights in South Dakota with ‘Ole and Lena’ jokes — which often, but not always, play off the supposed ignorance or, occasionally, innocence of first generation Norwegian settlers.
One of my favorites finds Ole and Lena reunited in heaven, and as they walk around enjoying all the beautiful sights. Lena says to Ole, “Isn’t it yust so beautiful up here?” and Ole responds, “Ya sure, and you know, we coulda been here a lot sooner if it weren’t for dat damn nursing home feeding us all dat oatmeal.”
And so it is with the Celtics. For as much as we’re enjoying this trip to The Finals, it’s hard to escape the notion that this team — or some variation of it — could’ve been here a lot sooner. But the thing is, we need to let go of that way of thinking.
All of that is water under the bridge now, and there’s a case to be made that because the C’s had to work so hard just to get here, they aren’t going to take anything for granted.
We may think that they’re late arrivals, but absolutely nothing came easy for these guys. And yes, you can look at a good share of their trials and point out that they were self-inflicted, but now that we’re here, does that really matter?
We always figure that guys should enter the league with an exclamation mark, the way Bird and Russell did, but we also forget that those guys were veterans before they were rookies. Bird was a fifth year senior in college before joining the Celtics, and Russell had already led the USF Dons to two NCAA titles (and a 55-game winning streak).
Jaylen and Jayson? They went from playing against 16- and 17-year old kids to playing against LeBron in two years.
No other professional league throws its rookies off the end of the dock like that, but it’s been done for so long in the NBA that we forget there was a time when players came into the league with experience that actually had some bearing on the game.
So let’s reset the clock a bit. Let’s go by age and not NBA experience…
Jayson Tatum is in his first Finals at age 24, just like Larry Bird.
If you figure that Tatum had four years of on-the-job training in lieu of a college career, it’s a bit easier to overlook some of the growing pains that he experienced.
Both Ainge and Stevens, but I think especially Stevens, knew that growth is not a linear process for these kids. Stevens saw it first hand as a college coach.
There’s a real adjustment period from being able to dominate players who are barely old enough for driver’s licenses to being able to dominate players who have been professionals for a decade or more. It’s going to take years for even the best players to fully make that transition.
There’s a conflict between how good you think you are based on prior experience, and how good you are based on your present competition, and that conflict is going to be frustrating at times. It’s going to require mental growth now that your physical abilities aren’t enough to get you by. And along the way, you’re going to have to develop a thick skin, because the mistakes you make aren’t going to be buried in games against back-marker Division 1 programs in the middle of blowouts. They’re going to be made in front of sellout crowds in big cities where guys literally earn their living finding fault with you and your teammates.
None of that is a linear process, and none of us have a right to expect it to be.
But the Celtics stuck by their young guys. For the most part, regardless of what we thought as fans, neither the coaches nor the front office expected the team’s young core to meet unrealistic standards. They let them find their own way to greatness.
If the C’s can hold on and win this thing, it’s because Ainge and Stevens and Udoka let them be themselves.