Psychology and the Celtics, Round Two

Reed —  February 6, 2009

We’ve spent a lot of time today talking about psychology, the Celtics, confidence, etc. Before that mood passes, here is a second round of scattered thoughts on point. Warning: there might be nothing less worth reading than someone playing pop psychologist in the world of sports.

At the end of the Christmas Lakers-Celtics game, a close friend called and, after appropriate gushing, prophesied an extended rough patch for the Celtics. I rejected the notion out of hand – they had just won 19 games in a row, were the reigning champions, had handily defeated LA in the finals the year before – what was one regular season loss to them? Nevertheless, my visionary friend firmly pressed on: “you don’t understand the psychological impact of that loss and the mental fragility of Boston.” The Celtics lost six of their next eight games, most totally unexplainable: a self destructing Golden State, Portland with no Roy, New York, Charlotte, at home to an injured Houston, and a total thumping from the Cavs. Prophecy fulfilled. This made me think more about the hand of psychology in sports.

Every team has a unique identity, earned through months and years of successes and failures; victories and losses; scandals and fights; heroism and selflessness. This identity reflects the team’s psychology more than its physical characteristics. A team is “soft” or “steely” or “united” or “disinterested,” but they are always something.

The current Celtics team has perhaps the most identifiable identity in recent memory. The typical watch word is “intensity,” but I believe this confuses an effect with its cause. Yes, the Celtics are perhaps the most intense team in recent memory, but this trait springs from a more fundamental characteristic – one that I think captures their psychological identity: insecurity. Now, at first blush that sounds like a petty jab, but when properly understood I think it also serves to compliment our rival. Insecurity, like most primal traits, manifests itself in several ways. On the positive end, it fuels hunger, intensity, work ethic, common purpose, a chip on the shoulder – all to prove naysayers wrong. On the flip side, it fuels self doubt, wild swings in confidence, and a constant need to show others up. Boston is all of these things. They pile on the trash talk; they are hungry, devoted, on a mission; they are white hot with confidence one minute, and full of strange doubt the next; they run off huge win streaks, but then are capable of immediately falling apart; they are, in a word, the team embodiment of insecurity.

For such a successful team, whence this strange insecurity? I believe it springs from the players’ and team’s roots with failure. First Garnett, the spiritual leader of the team and the prototype for insecure athletes. From off the court beginnings to his decade of failed championship questing in Minnesota, KG lived in the shadow of failure for a long time – always labeled as that star who couldn’t get out of the first round, and always afraid of the big shot. We all know people like him – the alpha male who has to be in charge, picks on the little guy, works like a demon, seems haunted by lingering self doubt, and is wildly successful.

For much of the rest of the team, I think the 2007 season sets the stage – the year before the championship. This was probably rock bottom for the Celtics as a franchise. After years of struggling to get over the hump in the east and going through various phases of rebuilding, the team saw salvation in Oden and Durant and (like a few others) shamefully tanked. We all remember the infamous Ryan Gomes quote after being withheld from key parts of a close game:

“I probably (would have played), but since we were in the hunt for a high draft pick, of course things are different,” Gomes said. “I understand that. Hopefully things get better. Now that we clinched at least having the second-most balls in the lottery, the last three games we’ll see what happens. We’ll see if we can go out and finish some games.”

Or this article, titled “Tankology,” from, where the author breaks down the evidence, including the team’s shutting down “injured” stars, playing odd lineup combinations during critical parts of games, limiting the best players minutes, etc. The author concludes:

Look, I don’t think the players were trying to lose any of these games intentionally. I do, however, think they weren’t properly motivated to give their best efforts as a team. I also think that Doc intentionally did not make his best effort coaching the team in late, close situations, under the guise of “I wanted to see what the guys would do” or “I thought we had a favorable matchup and didn’t want a timeout to ruin it” even though he had to know the players on the floor would not pull off what he supposedly wanted to see them do.”

At the same time, Jeff at Celtics blog was unleashing a steady stream of tongue in cheek articles monitoring the dive in the standings: “Tanks for the Memories,” “Tank Job Complete,” and “Welcome to Tank Week.” Jeff sums up his feelings when commenting on another’s tanking analysis: “the general feeling that he had (and that I share) is that it is great that we got the 2nd worst record, but we can’t help but feel a little icky about how it all happened.” Simmons chimed in with “From Celtic Pride to Celtic Shame,” and pushed for retooling the lottery system to punish would be tankers.

Several key members of the current Celtics were born on that team: Rondo, Perkins, Powe, Tony Allen. Their first taste of the league was on a team that seemed to break the one cardinal rule in sports: no matter what else you do, when on the court you play to win. They lost 18 games in a row, mostly because they were bad, but also because Doc and Ainge wanted Durant and Oden at any cost. They were the laughing stock of the league and Exhibit A for what was wrong with the league’s draft system. Deep insecurity was born.

When the lottery came and Boston’s plan failed (karma?), all seemed lost for a while. Pierce wanted out unless something dramatic happened. Ainge made a move for Garnett, but he initially refused to join the struggling franchise. He relented only when Allen was added and Kobe made it clear he wanted out of LA. With Garnett and Allen in the fold, a few critical veterans came for cheap (Posey, Allen, Brown, Cassell), filling out the holes.

This is when and how the current Celtics team was born – on the heels of embarrassment and failure. The players and team were full of hunger and intensity, but also faced lingering self doubt. Rondo and Perkins and Powe were easy converts to Garnett’s mantra of work and intensity, but they also shared his ghosts, even if they stemmed from different roots. We see both sides of that insecurity now, with the team exhibiting unparalleled work ethic, intensity, and confidence, but also strange periods of implosion. The bullyish side of the coin leads even rookie point guards like DJ Augustin (who should keep their mouths shut) to say things like: “(The Celtics) come in and intimidate you and try to punk you. But if you don’t back down from them, they kind of fold.” As Wojnarowski noted in his column last month, the Celtics’ antics have stirred up an unusual amount of disrespect from the rest of the league.

Now, let’s tie this back to the Lakers. What is the psychological identity of this Laker team? Does it have one?

This team is clearly distinguishable from the Shaq-Kobe-Phil teams. Those teams, despite the presence of all sacrificing role players like Fish, Fox, and Horry, seemed to carry the primal trait of self love. Shaq and Kobe both wanted to win, but they wanted to win in a way such that they could be The Man. They juggled an intense desire for team success with grand personal ambitions – mvp awards, legacies, media favor, etc. On the positive side, this resulted in steely self confidence down the stretch of key games (that rubbed off on others) and unthinkable on court accomplishments. On the negative side, it resulted in constant bickering, public posturing, division, and ultimately a team blown up well before its time. This is not who the Lakers are now.

Are we, perhaps, more like the Spurs psychologically? Driven by Duncan and Pop, those teams have always been characterized fundamentally by calmness and humility – which translates to being steady, united, moderate, unflappable, and enduring; but also creates complacency (remember that they always start slow and are counted out, only to pull it together at the end). There are some similarities, but the Lakers are still very different.

The truth is I don’t know if this Laker team has found its identity yet. Two things give me hope that the identity is grounded on something that is positive and will endure. First, in contrast with the Celtics, this team was not thrown together patchwork on the heels of disaster. By and large, Mitch added one piece at a time through the draft and modest trades. Gasol is the exception, but for the most part the team has grown step by step together. The core and system have been in place for years. Second, Kobe, Fisher, and Jackson present a united front of leadership and they emanate focus, professionalism, and intense competitiveness. But there’s also a casualness to the team that doesn’t fit with that – Odom, Radmanovic, Walton, Bynum. While Kobe has a killer instinct, I don’t know if the team does. While Fisher is a relentless competitor, the team as a whole isn’t all the way there.

Surely, they are developing, and in the right direction, but until we/they figure out who they are deep down, I sense we’ll always be left a bit unsure of what to expect on any given night. With the Shaq-Kobe teams, we were often frustrated by the drama, but knew that come playoff time the competitiveness and confidence would carry through. I think wins like we saw last night, or on Christmas, or against Cleveland reveal that this team is slowly adopting Kobe and Fisher’s character and developing a mental edge that harmonizes with its physical talents. This will result in an identity based on simple confidence. To me, this development is the last step before we overcome all. When Pau, Drew, Odom, Farmar, Ariza, etc. believe in themselves and their ability to win like Kobe and Fish do then we’ll see the titles roll in.

After last night, I believe we are well on our way.


(PS, make sure to read Dex’s brilliant comment).