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Boston Celtics Succeed With Players Who Star In Their Roles

Don Yaeger

05/18/22 | Athletes/Sports


Boston Celtics Succeed With Players Who Star In Their Roles

When the Boston Celtics faced the Milwaukee Bucks in the seventh game of their NBA Eastern Conference series, the hype and the pre-game commercials were focused on Giannis Antetokounmpo versus Jayson Tatum, the stars of their teams. (Tatum is the Celtics’ leading scorer and Antetokounmpo, also known as the “Greek Freak,” is the Bucks’ star.)

Somebody forgot to tell the Celtics’ Payton Pritchard about his role in the story.

Pritchard doesn’t see a ton of minutes as a player on a team led by stars Tatum and Jaylen Brown, but he does what he does very well when he is called to play. When the Celtics found themselves struggling to score and trailing the Bucks by nine points in the first quarter, Pritchard came in off the bench and quickly and efficiently drained a three-point basket. In the next period, with the score tied at 30-30 and Big Mo totally up for grabs, Pritchard made a textbook assist to teammate Al Horford under the basket.

Every game has a moment when the team that is trailing—even one that is being dominated—still has time to come back. In professional basketball, that “grace” period is surprisingly late—even as late as the middle of the fourth period. As the Bucks marshaled their last-gasp efforts to mount a comeback after the Celtics took command of the game, Pritchard once again proved the difference. He scored points, made assists, and grabbed rebounds—sometimes snatching the ball out of the very hands of Bucks players—to throttle Milwaukee’s thin comeback hopes.

“Payton Pritchard is the hardest working man on the floor right now,” noted the television commentator during the remarkable moments of the contest. “He is giving energy to every one of his teammates.”

“That’s what I do,” an elated Pritchard barked at his bench as he back-pedaled down the court after burying one of his four three-pointers. Earlier in the regular season, after a similarly influential performance, Pritchard offered a deeper reflection on his motivation. When asked how he motivated himself as a “bench” player, he admitted, “As a competitor, it’s tough. But I just try to stay ready. I go to work every day and get better and better so when my opportunity comes, I can make the most of it to help my team win. That’s all I can control.”

While all eyes were on the Celtics and Bucks stars, a guy who regularly inhabits the “substitute” column of the scoresheet made himself the star of his role. Small wonder that Boston coach Ime Udoka has consistently talked about the trust his players have for one another as the basis for his willingness to look to his entire team to contribute in a tight situation.

“That’s the thing, we’re a team,” said Jaylen Brown, one of the Celtic’s most talented players. “During this series, we showed our versatility that we can win in a multitude of ways.” While the Bucks depended to a large degree on their marquee player, the Celtics’ stars could be seen looking to get the ball to the dependable Pritchard—as well as Grant Williams, who scored 27 points—to rain three-point shots down on the Bucks.

The great character actor Konstantin Stanislavski famously remarked, “There are no small parts, only small actors.” The observation not only applies to setting individual performance goals but also to building high-performance teams. The Celtic-Bucks series poses an interesting question about culture that applies to business as well as sports. As a leader, which would you rather have: the brightest star in the world who is expected to carry his teammates on his shoulders or a team of contributors who look to one another to be the star of whatever role they play on the team?

This is not a six-of-one question because there is a fundamental difference in mindset between building teams around individual stars and building them around a team concept. In the first instance, you are operating under the belief that you can become too big or too good to fail. In the second instance, you operate with the belief that you are only as good as your weakest part.

Yes, in both instances you will assign different roles to different people in accordance with their skillsets. But what will differ, and markedly, are the expectations you will have for those throughout your organization.

As we noted in this space a few weeks ago, Boston has staked out its territory as the team-first par exemplar of the 2022 playoffs. While much of the media is content to focus on the drama of this star or that “big-three,” the Celtics continue to focus on “playing like a team,” just as they had done all year.

That, as Pritchard would say, is what they do.