So much for "speak softly and carry a big stick."
When Jason Terry, with his characteristic bravado, guaranteed to WEEI.com that the Celtics would win the NBA Championship, even going so far as to tattoo his left bicep with the signature leprechaun spinning the Larry O'Brien trophy on his finger, he threw his new team into uncharted and dangerous waters.
First, here are some examples of guarantees in American sports:
Muhammad Ali famously predicted he’d knock out Sonny Liston in the first round of their 1965 rematch, and, Phantom Punch or not, it came to pass. Pat Riley, then the Lakers head coach, announced immediately after his team won the 1987 championship that it would win the next one as well, and it did. There was the Babe’s Called Shot in the 1932 World Series against the Cubs and of course, the gold standard of guarantees, Joe Namath’s, solemn vow that his Jets of the supposedly inferior AFL would beat Don Shula’s Baltimore Colts in the Super Bowl.
Other guarantees haven’t worked out nearly as well.
Evander Holyfield said he was not making a prediction, but that he was “telling” the media that he would knock Lennox Lewis out in the third round of their 1999 title fight. Some fuzzy math on the judge’s scorecard spared him from giving up his championship belt, but it did nothing to ease pain from the beating he took.
“I personally guarantee that the Cleveland Cavaliers will win an NBA Championship before the self-titled former ‘king’ wins one.”
How do you think Dan feels about that today?
Closer to home, Gilbert Arenas wrote this blog post in 2007 about his (at the time) Washington Wizard’s opening game against the Celtics, the first for the new Big Three:
“Right now I’m telling the Boston fans: You guys are going to lose. It’s not going to be a victory for Boston. You might as well just cheer for me, because Boston isn’t winning in Boston for the season opener. I’m sorry.”
What happened? Kevin Garnett dropped 22 points and 20 rebounds on Arenas and the Wiz, and the Celtics came away with a 20-point victory.
The point is this: Sometimes a guarantee gives an individual or team the courage to compete at the highest levels. And sometimes it's a major miscalculation that just makes you look silly.
Now back to Terry. Head Coach Doc Rivers called the Mavs combo guard just after the start of free agency in order to infuse his club with clutch scoring off the bench, championship experience and, without a doubt, swagger that he hoped would rub off on the younger players. But while Terry’s audacity (via ESPN-Dallas) might have been just what the Mavericks needed to win during their run to the championship in 2011, it’s simply not the modus operandi for what has been an extremely successful Boston team.
Terry’s tattooing worked for the Mavs because that team had “losers” written all over it. Dallas had won at least 50 games every year since 2000, but never won a championship. The team did make the finals in 2006, but after winning the first two games at home, it lost the last four. It was a classic regular season team with little postseason success to speak of.
The Mavericks were such an afterthought two seasons ago that experts zeroed in (via CBS Sportsline) on their matchup against the Blazers as the most likely first-round upset.
By emblazoning his right bicep with the championship trophy, Terry was telling his teammates that he believed they had what it takes, and so should they. It wasn't the only factor in their run to the title, but his boldness was at least a nice shot in the arm.
But Terry’s new team is not like the Mavs of 2011.
Since the Big Three were assembled in, save for that first season when Garnett, Paul Pierce and Ray Allen were all either at or near the peak’s of their careers, the Celtics’ success has come largely as a byproduct of teams underestimating their heart when their bodies seemed to fail.
The Celtics won just one championship in the past five years, but they overachieved in the playoffs for three of the last four seasons. In 2009, they took a Magic squad that would eventually make the finals to seven games with Garnett out nursing a knee injury. The following year they shocked the league by not only making it to the finals, but coming within four minutes of upsetting the Lakers, doing so without injured center Kendrick Perkins. And in June they advanced to the Eastern Conference finals with a slew of injuries and extended the eventual-champion to seven games, as well.
The club’s core of Garnett, Pierce and Rajon Rondo have all been champions and confidence is not something they lack. Though they talk plenty on the court (or never stop talking, in KG’s case), they play best when expectations are low. In fact, in all three of those postseason seven-game series, the Celtics held a 3-2 advantage. It almost seemed like they let up once they were given the credit they were due.
No, instead of instilling his new team with the poise needed to make a title run, Terry has placed a bull’s-eye square on their backs (and, again, on his bicep). Rather than letting the league believe once again that they’re too old and past their prime to compete for a championship, Terry is forcing the pundits to consider the Celtics contenders, and that’s just not how they play their best basketball.
Listen, signing Terry was nothing less than a coup d’état for the Celtics. Not since Larry Bird was in uniform have the Celtics had someone like the Jet, a former Sixth Man of the Year (don’t even consider suggesting Rasheed Wallace or Ricky Davis) coming off the bench. Terry's self assurance will be invaluable to the reserves, as will his "no-no-yes!" tendency to shoot in the biggest moments.
And there’s absolutely nothing wrong with having complete faith in your ability.
But for the Celtics to be true contenders, they need a large chip on their shoulders. Terry may have inadvertently taken it down a size.