"You can add it up. I don't want to do your job, but for me it's most important to have a championship.”
Those are the words of Mikhail Prokhorov from last September, at the ribbon-cutting ceremony for his new billion-dollar arena, in regard to his Nets paying the luxury tax. Last offseason, Brooklyn made a series of headline-stealing, big-money moves to assemble a core of Deron Williams, Joe Johnson, and Brook Lopez, all of which came with a hefty price tag (the Nets' payroll was $87.65 million last season), but one that also clearly stated the boss’s intentions. And if Prokhorov’s win-now approach was already on display then, it’s really on display now.
Let the record show that we always made fun of Ubuntu. The gradual disintegration of the Celtics’ Big Three era — which hit another milestone this weekend with Doc Rivers bouncing on Boston to try to make sure the denizens of Lob City play nice — might lead you to believe it’s only in hindsight that the rallying cry of the 2008 champions seems dopey as hell. Trust me: It always seemed dopey as hell.
Let’s travel back in time. The year is 2007, the city is Rome, and Ubuntu has just been born. From ESPN The Magazine’s cover story on the newly minted power trio: “‘Ubuntu!’ the Celtics shout as they break their huddle after practice. Coach Doc Rivers says he chose the chant over the typical ‘1, 2, 3, Celtics!’ after reading about Bishop Desmond Tutu over the summer. ‘Ubuntu,’ from the African Bantu language, stresses collective success over individual achievement. And maybe it's already having an effect. Boston's starting five all sported shaved heads in Rome, and Garnett bought each rookie three custom-made suits. The players hung out together nearly every night, cracking on one another for hours one evening on the Spanish Steps.”
Then, on opening night, when the new Big Three romped all over the Wizards, the heretofore unproven ameliorative effects of the work of Archbishop Tutu on basketball psychology appeared to have been confirmed, with much élan. As the team rattled off wins (8-0, 20-2, 29-3), these were, for Celts fans — grounded, after years of Vin Bakerisms, into sunken-eyed indifference — heady times. A manufactured all-star patchwork wasn’t expected to jell this quickly; this was almost an embarrassment of goodwill. But two things helped them avoid the post-Decision vibes that hurt the Heat. One was that KG, Paul, and Ray were just past their primes, which meant their team-up felt noble and selfless rather than craven and calculating. The other was that the big-grinning Doc, the ultimate players’ coach, had been handed his appropriate mound of clay and appeared to be molding it into elite, defense-first, team-basketball perfection. So yeah, sure, why not: Ubuntu, motherfuckers.
There are two fairly recent precedents for what happened with the Clippers and Celtics and Doc Rivers over the past 10 days. The first began on June 5, 1995, when Pat Riley, while still under contract with the Knicks, sent a secret 14-point memo to the Miami Heat outlining his contract demands, which included a 20 percent ownership stake, plus "$300 per diem expenses, credit cards, limousine service to and from games and a $15 million salary over five years."
Apparently that worked for Micky Arison and the Heat, because 10 days later Riley faxed a letter of resignation to the Knicks. Three months later, after the Knicks accused Miami of tampering and all this evidence — of, uh, blatant tampering — became public, the Heat agreed to send $4 million and a first-round pick to the Knicks as compensation. That's trade no. 1, and there are two lessons to be learned.
1. Never, ever trust Pat Riley.
2. In 1995, it was good to be negotiating contracts as Pat Riley.
Minutes after Boston held on for a 92-86 win against the Knicks — nudging the series to 3-2 and squeezing out at least one more home game this season — the Celtics were back in the visitor’s locker room at MSG, breaking down a little dustup. At the end of the game, Jordan Crawford, who hadn’t played a minute, got into it with Carmelo Anthony; fellow DNP’er D.J. White held him back, more or less, while Raymond Felton popped up to slang some words as well. The Internet has already come to a conclusion as to what Crawford said, and, well, it’s not pretty. Let’s just say the comments are in line with, but lack the subtlety of, Kevin Garnett’s famed Honey Nut Cheerios monologue.
“My homeys already texted me like, ‘You ’bout to scrap!’” White said, pulling up his pants while checking his phone. Then, to Crawford in the locker over, good-naturedly: “You started it, and you dipped!” Terrence Williams, who played a surprisingly solid 17 minutes at point guard, piped up: “Q[uentin Richardson] always comin’ in. Where he come from?” And White, by way of cosigning Williams’s disapproval of Richardson’s behavior: “Yeah, with his E.T.-lookin’ ass.” Meanwhile, Rajon Rondo was off to the side eating Chinese takeout, and Avery Bradley just tried to stay moisturized: “Yo, J.C., let me fuck with that lotion.” Crawford didn’t notice, busy getting dressed. (His ensemble included, I swear to God, a different pair of weed socks than the ones he had on the other day. In his defense, Hot Topic does tend to sell novelty socks in pairs.) Williams tried to offer him some alternate lotion, but Bradley stayed firm. “Nah, I'ma fuck with that lotion right there.”
A couple of weeks ago I was listening to Grantland’s own Jonah Keri talk about some Reds pitcher who had “lost velocity” on his fastball. As he spoke, I wondered what the NBA equivalent of this would be. Baseball has radar guns that reliably identify a downturn in pitching ability; we don’t have that instrument in the NBA. It’s not as easy to detect performance declines in basketball.
If there’s one theme that’s dominated the last few weeks in the NBA, perhaps it’s the immemorial relationship between age and decay. The NBA season is long, basketball is grueling, and old guys break down. The league is full of aging superstars who are always a tweak or aggravation away from street clothes.
The Celtics have one game left before the All-Star break, and you gotta imagine it can’t come soon enough. After playing the Bulls tonight, Kevin Garnett will head to Houston for the All-Star Game, Rajon Rondo will continue prepping for surgery, and Paul Pierce will drive home, where he’ll be enjoying a relaxing All-Star snubbee weekend by (presumably) playing a whole bunch of Just Dance 2 for Wii. Meanwhile, Danny Ainge will try and make sense of what was about as odd, heartbreaking, and bonkers a first half a team can have.
When Rondo went down, I wrote there wasn’t much of a silver lining: Any relief provided by an uptick in play and a corresponding rash of wins would be tempered by sad chatter that “maybe this team doesn’t need Rondo all that much anyway.” Well, this team, as it has an inclination toward, outdid itself. It wasn’t just an uptick; it was a blood-pumping, shots-fired, kill-’em-all, “is this your pen?”-esque annihilation spree. When the Celtics toppled Denver on Sunday night in triple OT, they muffed out the Nuggets' nine-game winning streak, stretched out their own seven-gamer, and coronated themselves as THE HOTTEST TEAM IN THE LEAGUE [air horn] [air horn] [air horn].
The Celtics are 4-0 without Rajon Rondo and have scored 102.4 points per 100 possessions in that stretch, a mark that would rank 12th overall — about a dozen spots and 2.5 points better than what Boston’s putrid offense has done for the season, per NBA.com. This has resulted in a predictable rush of instant analysis and debate about whether the Celtics, a below-average offensive team for nearly four seasons, might be “better without Rondo.”
The Dunkin' Donuts Turkey Sausage Wake-Up Wraps are tasting a little bitter in Boston this week. Rajon Rondo’s out for the season, and out with him, in no particular order: all gorgeous, mind-boggling passes whose lanes could have only been spotted by no. 9, having briefly entered the fourth dimension; all team outings to the Roller World in Saugus; and, of course, all rational hopes for another Celtics title run.
Now usually, in this kind of general “elite player out” situation, there’s a silver lining. With the hobbled fellow a totem, the team rallies — all grit and heart and Michael Jordan’s secret stuff — and becomes a scruffy lovable underdog. (You know, like Varsity Blues). And on paper, there’s no reason why that can’t happen. Imagine: Pierce, pumped to still be in Boston despite trade talks, and KG, pumped to be anywhere at any time always ever, lock into a newly spirited level of basketball. Leandro Barbosa, enjoying newfound playing time, does it big for São Paulo. Jason Terry sells his soul to Satan and regains the ability to play basketball. The Celts squeeze into the playoffs, give someone a scare, maybe even win a series.
But this being Rajon Rondo we’re talking about, things can’t be quite that simple.
“You know it’s just a nickname, right?” That was Glenn "Doc" Rivers's response to a postgame reporter who had just asked him whether Rajon Rondo would be ready for the beginning of next season. The enigmatic point guard had a torn ACL and is out for a long time, but the exact schedule remains unclear, especially to a heartbroken basketball coach with a medical nickname. The Celtics had just recorded their biggest win of the year, but that now seemed unimportant.
Only a few hours earlier, the Celtics’ biggest problem (that they knew of) was a 7-game losing streak. The team was playing horribly. Following a key divisional loss against the Knicks on Thursday, Boston traveled to Atlanta, where they blew a 27-point lead and lost in double overtime. By Sunday morning, conversations about the Celtics included terms like “rock bottom” and “blow it up.” To make matters more urgent, the Heat were in town for a one o'clock nationally televised ABC game.
In case you were busy breaking the last of your New Year's resolutions, here's what you missed in sports last weekend.
Novak Djokovic became the first man to win three consecutive Australian Open titles in the Open era, topping Andy Murray 6-7, 7-6, 6-3, 6-2. The match turned during the second-set tiebreaker when a feather fell slowly to the court, distracting Murray. Murray snatched the feather from the air, called time, went to his bag, pulled out his lucky copy of Curious George, and tucked the feather between its pages. He then took out a box of chocolates, and approached a random woman in the crowd. "Hello," Murray said. "My name's Andy, Andy Murray; you want a chocolate?" The woman shook her head at him. Murray shrugged and said, "I could eat about a million and a half of these. My mama always said, 'Life is like a box of chocolates. You never know what you're gonna get.' Those must be comfortable shoes. I wish I had shoes like that." Murray then ate a chocolate himself, before returning to the court, double-faulting, and dropping the set on the way to losing the match, while complaining of terrible foot blisters.
In case you were out living a life of leisure, here's what you missed in sports on Wednesday.
Draymond Green made a layup with 0.9 seconds left as the Warriors stunned the Heat in Miami, 97-95. "Rejoice while ye may, creatures of Earth, for soon I shall have my revenge when I melt thy ice caps, flood thy shores, and bring famine and war into thy very home!" said the Heat, who is a huge LeBron fan.