Whether it’s a direct result of trading Rajon Rondo and Jeff Green or a direct response to those deals, these young Celtics are playing with more purpose than they have all season.
“It’s kind of like being a younger brother,” C’s rookie Marcus Smart said following a 108-100 victory against the Pelicans. “You’re always told, ‘You can’t do this; you’ll never do this,’ and you just want to prove them wrong. And that’s kind of what we’re trying to do.”
Rondo has since admitted to a lack of effort during his final 18 months in Boston, and Green was notorious for showing up one night only to disappear the next. That’s a horrible message for young players, and probably part of the reason they’re gone.
“I’d like to see everybody carry the torch,” Celtics president of basketball operations Danny Ainge said of a void left by trading his two top players, adding: “Everybody has to be a leader, and I’ve seen just in recent weeks that there are more voices to be heard and more people that are stepping up and trying to be leaders, and time will tell whether they can be. Sometimes some voices snuff out the voice of others, and we’re tying to create a culture where everybody takes ownership and it results in the success of the team.”
It’s difficult to describe, but some players suck the air right out of the locker room. Green was one, and Rondo another. Jared Sullinger and Avery Bradley respectively dressed next to that tandem, assuming their personalities in the postgame. Smart never followed the lead, though, if only because at 20 years old he doesn’t know any better. His locker is positioned in the center of the room, and he’s faced the music without skipping a beat.
“I still have a long way to go,” Smart said of assuming the leadership role in Rondo’s absence. “There are some guys in here who have been playing longer than me, and trying to get them to jell with me and listen to me is definitely a challenge, but I’ve been doing pretty well. We’ve been getting along with that. They respect me, and I respect them.”
He certainly commanded Celtics coach Brad Stevens‘ respect on Monday night, playing all 12 minutes of the fourth quarter as veteran Evan Turner watched from the bench. Smart collected four points, four assists and three rebounds in the frame — including a dagger of a chase-down, turnaround 3-pointer — as the C’s outscored New Orleans 36-24.
“He had nothing but zeroes at halftime, except for two assists and one turnover, and we talked as a staff; we thought he was terrific,” said Stevens. “All that other stuff on a stat line isn’t where his impact can be the greatest, and he really made a huge impact.”
The same can be said of Jae Crowder, a 24-year-old wing with a tireless work ethic, who arrived in the Rondo deal and assumed a starting role in the C’s three post-Green games.
“Well, I think that’s who he is,” said Stevens. “I think that’s probably more of his reputation prior to coming here — just being an intangible type of guy. One of the things I’ve noticed about Jae is he has a really deliberate way about his work.’
After a pair of productive outings in back-to-back losses to the Pacers and Raptors over the weekend, Crowder scored a career-high 22 points on 14 shots to go along with four steals, three assists, three rebounds and two blocks in Monday’s win over the Pelicans.
“I know we live in a world where we have to watch our talk, but we were pretty sure that [Green] trade was going down Friday,” said Stevens. “So, this was really Game 3 [without him], and I thought they played hard. I thought we played hard all three games.”
As we learned with the arrival of Kevin Garnett, determination can be contagious, and the resolve of both Smart and Crowder might just be wearing off on their teammates, as Sullinger scored a season-high 27 points to go along with 10 boards and three assists.
“We’re going to fight,” said Crowder. “I’m not worried about what other people are saying right now. We know what we have to do each and every game to give ourselves a chance, and we have a good understanding of the unit right now, so we’re going to keep fighting.”
The Celtics still need stars to light the way, but at least two players are picking up a torch.