It's time for them to grow on us
Dwayne Jones goes high over Earl Barron of the Heat for one of his 10 rebounds, and the Celtics, taking advantage of some missing Miami stars, posted an 85-78 victory. (Globe Staff Photo / Matthew J. Lee)
It was the last morning shootaround of the season. You don't really think Doc Rivers was wasting much time going over the offense and defense of the Miami Heat, especially since there was about as much chance of Shaquille O'Neal and Dwyane Wade seeing any action as there was of Whitey Bulger showing up to try the Foxwoods $77,777 shot?
Ah, that would be a no.
''Today," Rivers reported, ''was an interesting day. I used the time to review the season with the players. I needed to tell them how disappointed I was with the season. They needed to hear that."
And by ''they," of course, he also meant ''we." He is being paid very good money to develop the raw ingredients into a gourmet meal, and all he could come up with was a midmorning snack, and a pretty unfulfilling one at that.
''I told them we could be pretty good next year," said Rivers, ''but that we all needed to improve -- coaches, players, everybody."
The truth is the Celtics really do have a lot of very intriguing raw ingredients. The biggest problem is that far too many of them are a long way from being ripe, or seasoned, or whatever culinary metaphor you'd care to employ.
Of the 14 players on the roster, eight will start next season at age 24 or younger. They are Ryan Gomes, Tony Allen, and Orien Greene, 24; Dwayne Jones and Delonte West, 23; Al Jefferson and Kendrick Perkins, 21; and Gerald Green, 20. Of course, they may not all be here, but most of them will be, and they will pretty much determine the course of the season.
''What they must understand is that it's not just going to happen," Rivers said. ''They're going to have to work for it. I get sick and tired of hearing from them, 'Oh, if we had gotten into the playoffs, we would have been dangerous. No one would want to play us.' I'm online every day. I see what's going on around the league, and guess what? You hear the same thing in Orlando, Philadelphia, Utah, and Oklahoma City. It's losers' talk. Truth be told, no one wants to play Detroit, San Antonio, and Miami, not any of these other teams."
Such talk is frighteningly delusionary. The Celtics have raw talent, but they scared no one.
''Here are the constants with this team," said Rivers. ''This is what I'd hear from other people in the league. They'd say, 'You guys are very difficult to guard. The movement you have, and the way the ball gets to Paul [Pierce], makes him unguardable. But we still think we're going to win the game because you're soft and you can't defend.' Now that's something I take very personally, because I like to think that wasn't me as a player."
The 2005-06 Celtics had their moments, but they were completely and utterly unreliable. It took them until Games 24 and 25 to construct a two-game winning streak, and they only equaled that four more times during the season. That's right, they never so much as had one three-game winning streak. Not to dwell too much on the team's storied past, but to someone who was blessed to cover a Celtics team that once went 271 games stretched over 3 1/2 seasons without losing three in a row (February '72 to November '75), the idea that players on a team could talk even remote trash without being able to win three straight even once is both laughable and pathetic. Sorry, but I've seen too many Celtics teams for which even a seven- or eight-game winning streak was no big thing, but rather a simple affirmation of getting out of bed in the morning, for me not to be appalled with such foolish talk.
But I really do like the promise of these kids. West is a poor man's Joe Dumars type. Perkins is a major league rebounder and not a bad shot-blocker, and not a bad inside scorer, either. Gomes is a pure basketball player who could really enhance a team with championship aspirations. Allen is tough and versatile. Greene has Chaneyesque defensive potential. Jefferson, whose season was a 100 percent washout from the minute he first sprained his ankle, remains a major talent who could be molded into the next Elton Brand (I said ''could"). And Green? Who knows?
''Gerald Green is a microcosm of the entire situation," Rivers said. ''My own kids say, 'Put in Gerald Green!' They'll say, 'Gerald Green had a great game last night.' And I'll say, 'Did you see the game?' They'll say, 'No, I saw the highlights on SportsCenter.' "
We can all see why Green was generally acclaimed as the best athlete in the 2005 draft and why the Celtics felt they could not pass him up. You can't teach some of the stuff this kid can do. The question is whether he will ever absorb the things he needs to learn in order to translate that extraordinary raw talent into a player of the Kobe-Tracy ilk, which is the ultimate Celtics fantasy. Next season the Celtics want less sideshow and more hoop substance from this immensely gifted young man.
''The thing I like about him, is that while he is extremely confident about his abilities, he does know he has things to learn," Rivers said. ''He really does want to be special."
The problem any coach has when he is in Doc's situation is impressing on the young players that both their salary and their very place on the roster are pure circumstance. Yes, they're in the NBA, but, come on . . .
''How can you know you haven't [yet] made it, when everybody is telling you how great you are?" Rivers inquired. ''You're not great yet. You have a chance to be great."
They all have things to learn individually, but that's not the half of it, or even a quarter of it. They must learn team defense, of course. That's a given. But there is something else, and it's a bit scary that they still need to be told.
''They don't understand the importance of games," Rivers explained. ''By that I mean the idea that there are some games you must win."
He's talking about home games against teams that are clearly your competition for playoff spots (not to mention teams such as Atlanta you'd darn well better beat at home). And yet the Celtics lost twice at home to Chicago, twice at home to Washington, and twice at home to Milwaukee, not to mention home losses to Orlando, Cleveland (OK, it was that 2-OT classic Feb. 15), and, yes, Atlanta. Unacceptable, all of it.
''Young people have no sense of urgency," Rivers sighed. ''They'd show up and say, 'We're playing Chicago,' when it should be, 'We're playing Chicago, so we really need this game.' That's got to change." Let the record show that the Boston mix-and-match team of kids and subs beat Miami's mix-and-match kids and subs, 85-78. Allen (third), Greene (second), and Gomes (first) earned the three Globe-approved stars.
It's over now, but the planning for next season begins today. ''I'm excited about the coming season," Rivers declared. I am, too, but it doesn't matter what you, me, Doc, Danny, Wyc, Steve, or Red think.
It's this simple: Either these kids grow up or they don't. We cannot be having the same discussion a year from now.
Bob Ryan is a Globe columnist. His e-mail address is firstname.lastname@example.org.