Summer NBA chatter is full of free agency and trade talk, emotional summer league reactions, and super early prognostication. A recent development is players making the podcast rounds and talking candidly about the game with other players. Sometimes they touch on the nuances of the game such as the talent, poise, and discipline it takes to succeed. The players provide more talking points for fans and journalists to read into and let the imagination run wild.

Physical Vs Mental

Recently, Grant Williams of the Boston Celtics hopped on the Miami Heat’s Duncan Robinson’s podcast, The Long Shot. Naturally, the most recent NBA Finals were brought up and Williams dutifully offered some candid remarks. You can hear the full quote below, but the part that took off on Twitter was Williams saying the Celtics were the better team compared to the Warriors, but the Warriors were more disciplined.

Listening to the full quote, it’s understandable why the snippet caught like wildfire and the quote was much more benign. Williams basically said the Celtics were more talented, which I would argue was pretty obvious to anyone watching the Finals. Instead, he used “better team”, a crutch all too common when discussing teams. It is quite the description for a 4-2 series loss while being kept at a distance for the last two games.

Davis Reid, Williams, and Robinson on set.

When talking about the best teams, people often lean on talent as the main factor. Generally, they would be correct. The saying, “it’s not about the X’s and O’s, it’s about the Jimmies and the Joes” has truth to it. However, there is more to determining the best teams than talent. That is where the second part of Williams’s viral quote hits on a very important aspect of the best teams.

Discipline and poise when the pressure rises can compensate for less talent or augment teams with the most talent. Conversely, the lack of discipline and poise can cause those greatly talented teams to fall short in their ultimate quest. Discipline and poise aren’t as glamorous as talent nor as important. But, in the crucible of high-pressure moments and games, they can level the playing field and lift a less talented team to the top.

Thinking Vs Playing

Outside of Draymond Green in the first two games in Boston, it was pretty undeniable the Warriors were the more disciplined and poised team. You could see them sticking with the game plan, not chasing knockout blows that deviated from the flow of the game, and understanding that make-up possessions do not exist.

Williams’s comments reminded me of what David Thorpe of True Hoop says about the difference between college and pro players. College players play the game while pros think through the game. His point being, pros overall understanding of the game allows them to rely on more than talent when playing. 

They aren’t as reactionary. They see things before they happen and understand game flow in a more nuanced way. It allows them to tap into the full breadth of their physical and mental talents. The pros are playing a complete game while the youngins rely almost exclusively on physical talent. The mental side of their game is still developing.

Back to the Cs

While the Celtics and Grant Williams are not college players, they were young compared to the Warriors. The stat comparing the Warriors’ 100+ games of Finals experience to the Celtics’ zero is the most illustrative example. As the series played out, the Celtics’ size and athleticism, physical talent advantages, were mitigated more and more by the mental advantages and discipline the Warriors displayed. (Yes, Steph Curry shooting flames out of his ass for all but one game also helped.)

Williams gave voice to what we all saw, the Celtics would try and erase back-to-back turnovers or missed shots by chasing a five-point play. The Warriors countered by sticking to their defensive game plan and using that aggression against the Celtics to create live ball turnovers. Following each loss, the Warriors were calm and collected in their post-game comments. After Game 1, they pointed out outlier shooting performances. After Game 3, they drew similarities to the 2015 Finals where they recovered from a 2-1 deficit.

Draymond Green and Steph Curry used talent, poise, and discipline to connect for a backbreaker in game 4.

Whether Golden State fully believed their words or not, it belied a calmness of a team that was locked in and trusted their game plan. By the middle of Game 5, it was apparent that their physical and mental talent was going to make a Celtics comeback difficult. No coincidence the Warriors held 20-point leads in Games 5 and 6.

What ultimately made Williams’ comments slightly troubling for the Celtics is he said something similar happened in the 2020 Eastern Conference Finals. Playing Robinson’s Miami Heat, Williams said the Celtics were overconfident, believing their collection of talent would simply overwhelm the Heat. Instead, despite being outscored for the series, the Heat were able to win largely by staying disciplined and sticking to their game plan throughout rough patches.

Moving Forward

That’s two times in three seasons the Celtics have lost a series not because of talent but because of discipline. Still too early to call this a trend, especially with seven returners under 28 years old. Fixing these execution issues stemming from lack of discipline and merely playing the game can go a long way to helping this Boston squad reach the pinnacle of the sport.

Executing consistently, for longer periods of time is a hallmark of a better team just as physical talent. It’s not as sexy. It’s more difficult to spot and can be tougher to quantify, but it is absolutely essential to greatness. The Celtics have now been dealt two losses to teams that showed them it’s about a mix of the two that helps right the ship when a formidable opponent throws you off their game. This next stage of maturity and mental talent will allow the Celtics to level up.

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About Author

Ryan Rodriguez

If you want to hear my thoughts, check out my podcast, The Coastal Connection, which I do with some former coaching colleagues available on Spotify, Apple, and Google Podcasts. You can also check out my personal blog, The Thoughts of r2, if you want to read me on more topics than just NBA.

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