BOSTON — Gerald Wallace quietly conversed with Jeff Green in the corner, occasionally snickering at some whispered joke. Jerryd Bayless lounged beside Rajon Rondo, who himself was seated next to wide-eyed rookie Phil Pressey.
All around the Celtics’ locker room Wednesday night, before the ball went up for the last time in the first season of the post-Paul Pierce rebuild, players sidelined by injuries hung out with the few survivors. Wallace, Bayless and Rondo would not play in the game, but they were there in the locker room, taking advantage of one last chance to hang out with their teammates.
It’s a cliché to say teammates are close, and it’s often not remotely true. Not everyone on the Celtics will be lifelong friends now that this frustrating season is complete, but despite a bunch of injuries, even more losses and at least one outright defection, the players stayed remarkably united.
“This was a good group of guys,” Rondo said. “A lot of young guys, a lot of guys that are still learning the game, studying to be better. Everyone listens, continues to work hard.”
Brad Stevens’ first season as an NBA coach was not Shangri-La. Kris Humphries was benched to begin the season and Keith Bogans was excused from the team, reportedly for insubordination. Rondo decided not to travel to a game in Sacramento in a highly publicized incident, which he defiantly called “my business.”
However unintentionally, Danny Ainge put together a virtual tinderbox of a roster for his rookie coach. Humphries, Bogans, Wallace and Brandon Bass all were semi-high-priced veterans expecting playing time. Courtney Lee, now a key piece of the playoff-bound Memphis Grizzlies, struggled to find minutes. Avery Bradley’s free agency loomed. Jeff Green was an enigma.
But if there was discontent in the locker room, it never made its way onto the court. Players didn’t look to pad their stats with an eye to their next contract; the Celtics had the eighth-lowest assist total in the league, but that was more a product of their inability to hit shots. Although changes are surely coming, Stevens does not see the need to completely gut the roster.
“The guys that are here will be better if they’re back,” Stevens said. “One of the reasons I feel strongly about that is that the locker room’s never really severed. It’s never really gotten away from anybody. The guys have been pretty good about being accountable to one another and playing together, for the most part.
“We’ve had our clunkers, don’t get me wrong. We’ve had some bad days. But I think we’ve had some days we can build on, too.”
Rondo, the first-year captain, pointed up the company ladder.
“It just shows the character, the type of guys we have,” Rondo said. “It starts with Danny, it starts with Brad, and then it continues down through the locker room. Especially with the amount of guys we’ve had, some games we’ve dressed 14 guys, other games we’ve dressed eight. They gave it all they had, every night.”
For the previous six seasons, the Celtics’ ubuntu culture was credited for its role in the team’s perennial championship contention. Now, Rondo and the gang are finding out that unity alone is not enough. But given the alternative — losing, plus endless internal discord — they know it could have been worse.