BOSTON — Entitlement, Joe Mazzulla detests it. He knows when his team coasts to another easy win, everyone will think the coast is clear at the top of the league. They look up the standings and just see blue sky, instead of the rocky cliffs below the summit.
But you don’t dwell on the mountaintop. The air is too thin up there.
As teams like the Indiana Pacers make big trades to move toward serious contention, reality sets in. Each team in the NBA has a short window to win a title. It’s that brief plateau on a franchise’s bell curve of success where player development, experience, and expectations all intersect.
Monday’s 129-124 win over the Pacers was a reminder of what winning is supposed to look like for a great team. One night earlier, the Boston Celtics broke out of their stupor to mount a comeback win over the New Orleans Pelicans. Afterward, Mazzulla railed against that entitlement to winning, saying he hopes his Celtics blow another 10, 12 leads just to erase that notion.
Kristaps Porziņģis got the message. So when he turned the ball over early in the third quarter, as the Pacers were mounting yet another post-halftime comeback, he didn’t sulk. He didn’t languish. He turned around and sprinted back to force a Buddy Hield miss, then fought to eventually secure the rebound.
While his coach’s message was aimed at whoever wants to presume his team will waltz into a win, Porziņģis took it personally. He showed exactly what winning means to him in that play.
“When he said that, I saw that on Twitter — obviously I didn’t play last game — but when he said that, that was so on point. I couldn’t agree more,” Porziņģis said. “Like, we are really good and we can win games without being 100 percent locked in. We can still win games, but that’s not what we’re trying to achieve. We want to be the best version of this team that we can be. And that’s why we need to lock in each and every game, each and every quarter, each and every possession, as long as we can.”
But the Celtics kept stumbling in the third quarter against Indiana, quickly losing their 20-point lead. The Pacers had 19 offensive rebounds on the night, beating the Celtics 31-6 in second-chance points.
“They move around like crazy, play chaotic. They get those second-chance points and it looks really bad,” Porziņģis said. “It kills the energy, kills the crowd, kills our energy. So it’s tough and ugly to play against them. But we fought, and we got the win at the end.”
Against a team that has a seemingly unlimited motor but lacks the skill and discipline that make the Celtics great, Boston had to morph to compete again in this game.
“We had to stay high energy,” Porziņģis said. “You have to stay high energy and strong mentally on tough nights like this, like back-to-backs – a little bit maybe tired and all that. You have to put all that stuff and all those excuses to the side, and just play hard and play to our level. And that’s it.”
In the regular season, games are often a tug-of-war between each team’s playing style. The Celtics don’t need to dictate the shape and tempo of the game as much as most teams because they can usually lock down on defense when they want and create clean shots when they need to.
There isn’t this grand struggle to find their identity like there has been in the past. But that identity gets lost in success. It’s just inherent that the more you win, the less desperate you are to fight. So it’s that midseason malaise that is Mazzulla’s biggest enemy right now.
“I think it’s important the relationship with both winning and losing,” Mazzulla said. “I’ve said it a couple of times: Winning can be unhealthy because you start to think that you don’t have to reinvent yourself or you just get too comfortable.”
They can’t be comfortable with the way things are evolving around the league right now. The Toronto Raptors cast off their remaining vets, as the New York Knicks are thriving with OG Anunoby. Now the Pacers, a team that should be a few years away, look more complete with Pascal Siakam.
When Rick Carlisle returned to Indiana, he mapped out a vision to throw out the playbook and play completely off the cuff and on the move. They reshaped the roster around Tyrese Haliburton and Myles Turner and now have an imposing wing in his prime to push this team to the next level.
“He just finds his way in the game and one of the really great things so far is that he also has a way of melding with teammates,” Carlisle said of Siakam. “And the great thing about Pascal is even if you didn’t design one play for him and even if you didn’t have any plays or actions at all, you had him jump into a game with four other good NBA players, he would find a way to get 18 points, eight rebounds and five or six assists.”
It was 23 points, six rebounds (four offensive), and two assists this time. Siakam had essentially the same stat line as Jaylen Brown. When the Pacers kept pushing in the third quarter, he would come crashing in for a put-back. When they needed a big bucket in the fourth, they could go to him to create.
“It fits into what I can do,” Siakam said. “I can play fast and I think the luxury that I bring is that if we decide to slow it down, I can do that too. Being able to get tough buckets when we need it.”
The Pacers look like the kind of team that likely won’t beat the Celtics in a seven-game series but will keep them on their toes. Boston won the extended season series 3-2, coming away with the impression that this is the kind of team that will push them if they meet again in the postseason.
“You can tell they’re fighting for something, they’re playing for something, and that’s a sign of a really good team,” Jrue Holiday said. “Young or not, they play very, very hard. You can tell that they lock into each other and the way they compete together is really important.”
These are the kinds of games the Celtics usually dropped in recent years. This steadiness to this year’s squad keeps the bottom from falling out most of the time. There have been a few hideous losses, but tons of ugly wins.
“In the past, a lot of you guys remember some of those results and then losses. I think it’s a step forward that in those moments of adversity that we still have found ways to win,” Brown said. “I guess everybody wants us to be perfect. Over the course of 82, it’s tough to do. I think we’ve taken steps this year because I think a lot of those times, we’ve blown leads and they ended up in losses.”
There isn’t just talk of shared responsibility, but it’s apparent as everyone in the starting lineup takes on just about every role on a nightly basis. Porziņģis is getting back to contest 3s, Derrick White is protecting the rim, and Brown is driving just to drop it off to Holiday for a layup.
“I think that we’ve grown in a lot of ways,” Brown said. “Experience is the best teacher.”
And when players mess up, Mazzulla tells it to their face. He shows it on film. But he shows patience too. Everyone is held accountable and plays like it.
“If he can challenge those guys, then he can challenge everybody else also, so you have to give credit to JB and JT for being open to that,” Porziņģis said. “I think that’s a big part of what makes us a great team. And we need that in the long run and in the most important moments like the playoffs in high-tension situations.”
Porziņģis knew when he got back for that innocuous contest early in the third quarter that the basketball karma would come back around. He said players always want to play a pretty game, hit some nice shots, get some stops, and just play perfect basketball. But those moments of beauty are the reward for winning ugly.
So Porziņģis showed some grit and made up for his mistake with hustle. Then a play later, he got to do something gorgeous.
ENGAGE EIGHT 😤 pic.twitter.com/jpl60kaeGQ
— Boston Celtics (@celtics) January 31, 2024
It all comes full circle in the end when you play the right way. Yet there were moments in this game when Porziņģis would get pulled so the Celtics could go to more switchable lineups.
He didn’t care. Sacrifice is easy when everyone’s doing a little bit of it.
“If you get taken out of a game or something’s not going your way or whatever, we’re just here to win and do what’s best for the team,” Porziņģis said. “And if we all keep that mindset, it’ll be a special year.”
(Photo of Kristaps Porziņģis scoring against Myles Turner: Brian Fluharty / Getty Images)