The 2021-22 Boston Celtics had a courtside seat for Kevin Garnett’s jersey retirement ceremony on Sunday night.
For stars like Jayson Tatum and Jaylen Brown, this is the second time they’ve watched up close as a member of the 2008 title team got their jersey hoisted to the rafters after Paul Pierce had his day in 2018.
Here’s what Celtics fans should hope the Jays take away from the proceedings: Both Garnett and Pierce were elite NBA talents but winning a title in Boston changed everything for them. They both had incredible amounts of individual success but it wasn’t until they came together, got the right parts around them, and sacrificed portions of their own games that both were able to reach the pinnacle of NBA success.
Even on a team as decorated as the Celtics franchise, being the face of a title team all but ensures immortality.
The paths of Pierce and Garnett are a reminder that there are often bumps along the way to that ultimate goal. Pierce endured some incredibly lean years in Boston, while Garnett simply couldn’t get over the hump with what was around him in Minnesota.
In Boston, both Pierce and Garnett sacrificed a bit of individual statistics, embraced the overall collection of talent assembled, and pushed that group to new heights. Their only regret is likely that Boston’s Big Three hoisted just one championship and injuries conspired against the quest for more.
The 2021-22 Celtics don’t lack for talent, especially with the Jays at the helm. This year’s team doesn't have nearly as much experience or depth as the 2007-08 Celtics, but roster tweaks this summer could address some areas of need.
The challenge for Tatum and Brown is getting the core of this team to buy in even more fully to a system predicated on defense and sharing the basketball. When the Celtics embrace those hallmarks, they’re a championship-level team. When they slip a bit, they’re vulnerable.
Boston’s top-ranked defense disappeared in the third quarter Sunday -- maybe Garnett should have saved his brief meet-and-greet with players until halftime -- and, combined with a poor shooting night overall, the Celtics watched the Mavericks rally for a 95-92 triumph.
The loss couldn’t damper a night in which Garnett was toasted for the way he changed the entire culture of the Celtics organization upon his arrival in 2007. His relentless intensity created a new standard for everyone in the organization and guided Boston to a title in the Big Three’s first season together.
These modern Celtics sometime play like former championship squads. For stretches, they might pass the ball like the 1986 Celtics. Or lock in on defense like the 2004 Pistons. But occasionally they’ll let their foot off the gas just long enough to complicate matters.
Boston wasn’t particularly crisp in crunch time Sunday and it was enough for Luka Doncic to burn them at the finish line. (This time, he let Spencer Dinwiddie hit the late-game 3, though he was open because of the attention Doncic drew from three defenders.)
Boston could fret a whole bunch of little mistakes along the way Sunday. Eight first-half turnovers prevented the Celtics from tearing the game open. So did Dinwiddie throwing in a deep 3 on the final play of the first half. The Mavericks blitzed Tatum throughout the second half and Boston’s supporting cast couldn’t make them pay for the attention.
Garnett’s presence ensured the 2007-08 Celtics didn't often wane in intensity. Garnett noted Sunday how Boston’s second unit pushed him to be better because of not only their talent, but the grit and fight they displayed in intrasquad scrimmages. One of the more memorable photos of Pierce’s time in green is him hunched over in the weight room with an inspirational quote on the wall behind him reading, “What hurts more, the pain of hard work or the pain of regret?”
The 2021-22 Celtics, while far from perfect, are too talented to look back after the season and lament what could have been. They will already kick themselves about games lost to inferior competition that has left them trying to climb in a cluttered Eastern Conference.
Winning a title isn’t easy. Standards are impossibly high when you’re a team with 17 title banners hanging above your court. But the reward for delivering another championship is quite grand.
That needs to push Tatum and Brown. They’ve achieved all sorts of individual success, but winning as a team gives them the best chance that members of the 2041-42 Celtics might be watching as Nos. 0 and 7 head to the rafters.
Tatum and Brown might very well be the next Pierce and Garnett. Maybe Williams is a Ray Allen-like third star. Maybe Smart is the Rajon Rondo-like quarterback of it all.
It simply comes down to how hard the core of this team wants to work to be great. It might not happen immediately and the offseason could deliver needed help.
But having two healthy superstars and a complementary core shouldn’t be taken for granted. Nothing is guaranteed -- just ask Garnett after his injury-shortened 2009 season when the Celtics might have been even better than the previous year.
You have to maximize opportunities to compete when they present themselves. Every playoff run is a chance for Tatum and Brown to cement their legacies in green.