The Boston Celtics’ massive roster revamp came fast and furious this summer, each move executed as if it were just the next domino to fall in an elaborate party trick. For a Celtics franchise that had just reached the Eastern Conference’s biggest stage, bringing back only four players from last year’s gritty 53-29 roster was bold to say the very least.
At media day, Marcus Smart, Al Horford, Terry Rozier and Jaylen Brown stood as the sole survivors from a hectic three months, but as they spoke, it became clear that the Celtics’ expectations have not changed at all. For every key departure like Isaiah Thomas, Jae Crowder and Avery Bradley, there was an equally exciting arrival coming back the other way. And when the dust finally settled, general manager Danny Ainge and the Celtics felt as if they engineered another winning combination.
“Obviously, those guys were terrific players for us,” Ainge said. “But we had a chance to get some players this year that we really like also. And we can have some continuity with [them], we don’t plan on doing this same thing next summer.”
Of course, the source of such optimism undoubtedly comes from Boston’s recent acquisition of two bonafide superstars. In July, the Celtics nabbed Gordon Hayward via free agency and then they received Kyrie Irving in a shocking trade that saw Ante Žižić, Thomas, Crowder and the Brooklyn Nets’ 2018 unprotected first-rounder leave town. As Horford put it on Monday, the Irving trade was a big surprise to everybody, but it could give Boston a much-needed boost – both in 2017-18 and beyond.
Throughout Monday afternoon, the Celtics’ veterans and youngsters took turns at the podium to recap their whirlwind offseasons and innate desires for the season to begin. With training camp set to tip off tomorrow in Rhode Island, the roster’s focus was palpable, but they all understand that it’ll be a day-to-day process for now. Despite the many echoed sentiments of inevitable ups and downs, the Celtics were also keen to keep their expectations just as high as they’ve always been.
So when Brad Stevens was asked about balancing the roster turnover with the expectations of another deep playoff run, the head coach was succinct in his response.
“Our expectations haven’t changed so there’s no balance,” Stevens said. “You work every day to try to be the best you can be, we know what the goal is in Boston – that’s stated pretty clearly with the banners that hang above us.”
Entering his fifth season as head coach of the Celtics, Stevens has quickly become one of the franchise’s greatest assets. Aside from his growing acclaim as a tactical mastermind, players have recently come to Boston to compete and learn under Stevens. From Hayward, who cited Stevens as a huge reason why he left the Utah Jazz this summer, to Shane Larkin, fresh off a year overseas, most members of the newly crafted roster have already given their coach high praise.
“He’s one of the best coaches in the NBA, just being with him in this short amount of time that I’ve been here, he’s just got a different outlook on the game,” Larkin said. “He just seems like he’s a very smart coach with everything he does, not just on the court – but how he wants guys to recover, how he wants guys to get their rest and how he wants guys to go about their business.
“Hopefully, he can bring the best out of me because I know I’m ready for it.”
Hayward and Irving were the spotlighted additions this summer, but Stevens is clearly the key linchpin in Ainge’s ambitious plan to both retool and contend at the same time. The Celtics will start the season with just two players older than the age of 30 – Aron Baynes and Horford – and Smart is the team’s longest-tenured player heading into his fourth year. So the pressure to build another cohesive, hard-nosed unit will fall directly on Stevens’ shoulders, but it may prove harder than ever to do so.
Still, Horford is backing his talented head coach to do exactly that.
“[Stevens] has been a big influence on me. I feel like the guys will be challenged as far as them knowing about the game of basketball,” Horford said. “[He’ll challenge them] to look at themselves more critically, look at the film and really help them understand offense and movement.
“One of his biggest strengths is that he’s a great teacher and guys will be better.”
For a franchise like the Celtics in a championship-hungry city like Boston, their expectations will always be lofty, but this hungry roster is ready to embrace the next big challenge. It starts with the four returning veterans, but Boston won’t repeat last season’s successes without contributions from their slew of newcomers either. While Hayward and Irving’s anticipated value is obvious, Stevens’ new rotation will need reliable shooting from Marcus Morris, high-energy minutes from Jayson Tatum and hard-nosed defense from likes of Semi Ojeleye and the aforementioned Baynes as well.
“I’m super excited, it’s a new opportunity for me – it’s a clean slate, it’s 10-plus new teammates,” Brown said. “I’m super ready to learn how people’s minds work, to learn how to work with my teammates and put this thing together.”
The Celtics added some much-needed star power this offseason, but future triumphs will stem from a consistent team-wide effort as they begin to build a new identity together. Although most franchises would call a season with so many arrivals and departures a bridge year, Boston seems poised for another strong finish under Stevens and his reimagined roster.
More often than not, media day is filled with hyperbole and headline-grabbing quotes, but the overwhelming feeling out of Boston is that they’re just eager to get to work.
“Everything is urgent, everything matters, every detail matters,” Stevens said. “In a lot of ways, as big as of a challenge [as it is], it’s going to be a lot of fun.”
Middleton, Bucks Aiming To ‘Lock In’ As Season Comes To Close
Spencer Davies catches up with Milwaukee Bucks swingman Khris Middleton in a Basketball Insiders exclusive.
Basketball Insiders had the chance to chat with Khris Middleton about the direction of the Milwaukee Bucks as the season comes to a close.
You guys won three out of four before you came into Cleveland. What was working during that stretch?
Just being us. Doing it with our defense, playing fast-paced offense. Just trying to keep teams off the three-point line. We haven’t done that. We didn’t do that [Monday] or two games ago, but it’s something we’ve just gotta get back to.
With the offense—it seems like it’s inconsistent. What do you think that’s got to do with mostly?
Just trying to do it by ourselves sometimes. Standing, keeping the ball on one side of the floor. We’re a better team when we play in a fast pace. And then also in the half court, when we move the ball from side-to-side it just opens the paint for everybody and there’s a lot more space.
For you, on both ends you’ve been ultra-aggressive here in the last couple weeks or so, does that have to do with you feeling better or is it just a mindset?
I’ve been healthy all year. Right now, it’s the end of the season. Gotta make a push. Everybody’s gotta lock in. Have to be confident, have to be aggressive. Have to do my job and that’s to shoot the ball well and to defend.
Have you changed anything with your jumper? Looking at the past couple months back-to-back, your perimeter shooting was below 32 percent. In March it’s above 45 percent.
I feel like I got a lot of great looks earlier this year. They just weren’t falling. Right now, they’re falling for me, so I have the same mindset that I had when I was missing and that’s to keep on shooting. At some point, they’re gonna go down for me.
Is knowing that every game at this point means more an extra motivator for you guys?
Definitely. We’re basically in the playoffs right now. We’re in a playoff series right now where we have to win games, we have to close out games, in order to get the seeding and to stay in the playoffs. Each game and each possession means something to us right now.
Is it disappointing to be in the position the team is in right now, or are you looking at it as, ‘If we get there, we’re going to be alright’?
I mean, we wish we were in a better position. But where we’re at right now, we’re fine with it. We want to make that last push to get higher in the seeding.
Lots of changes have gone on here. Eric Bledsoe came in two weeks into the season. You had the coaching change and lineup changes. Jabari Parker’s been getting situated before the postseason. How difficult does that make it for you guys to build consistency?
Yeah, it was tough at first. But I think early on we had to adjust on the fly. We didn’t have too many practices. There was a stretch where we were able to get in the film room, get on the court, and practice with each other more.
Now it’s just at a point where we’re adding a lot of new guys off the bench where we have to do the same things—learn on the fly, watch film. We’re not on the court as much now, but we just have to do a great job of buying in to our system, try to get to know each other.
Does this team feel like it has unfinished business based on what happened last year?
Definitely. Last year, we felt like we let one go. Toronto’s a great team. They’re having a hell of a season this year, but I feel like we let one go. This year’s a new year—a little add of extra motivation. We’ve been in the playoff position before, so hopefully, we learn from it when we go into it this year.
Would you welcome that rematch?
I mean, we welcome anybody man. We showed that we compete with any team out here. We can’t worry about other teams as much. We just have to be focused on us.
What has to happen for you guys to achieve your full potential?
Lock in. Just play as hard as we can, play unselfish, and do our job out there night-in, night-out.
NBA Daily: Raptors Look To Fine-Tune The Defense
The Toronto Raptors’ defense had a letdown against the Cavaliers, but has been outstanding overall.
The Cleveland Cavaliers and Toronto Raptors engaged in an offensive shootout on Wednesday that could be a playoff preview. The Cavs protected home court with a single-possession, 132-129 victory. Afterward, the Raptors spoke about the types of defensive adjustments the team needs to make as the postseason rapidly approaches.
“That’s how a playoff game would be,” said DeMar DeRozan, who missed a three at the buzzer that could have forced overtime. “This is a team we’ve been playing against the last two years in the postseason. Understanding how we can tighten up things defensively, how to make things tougher for them [is key].
“[It’s] little small things that go a long way, and not just with them … with every team.”
Raptors coach Dwane Casey concurred with DeRozan that fine-tuning of the defense is needed. He also pointed out that, with young contributors such as center Jakob Poeltl and power forward Pascal Siakam on the roster, defensive experience against the league’s best player, LeBron James, is something they will have to gain on the fly.
“I don’t think Jakob Poeltl played against him that much, and Siakam,” said Casey. “This is their first time seeing it. I thought Jak and Pascal did an excellent job, but there are certain situations where they’ve got to read and understand what the other team is trying to do to them.”
Poeltl was outstanding, leading the bench with 17 points and tying for the team lead in rebounds with eight. Casey praised the diversity of his contributions.
“I thought he did an excellent job of rolling, finishing, finding people,” said Casey. “I thought defensively, he did a good job of protecting the paint, going vertical. So I liked what he was giving us, especially his defense against Kevin Love.”
Basketball Insiders previously noted how the Raptors have performed vastly better as a team this season when starting point guard Kyle Lowry is out of the game. Much of that is due to Fred VanVleet’s emergence as one of the NBA’s best reserve point guards. VanVleet scored 16 points with five assists and no turnovers against Cleveland. It’s also a reflection of how good Toronto’s perimeter defense has been up and down the roster.
According to ESPN’s defensive Real Plus-Minus statistic, three of the NBA’s top 15 defensive point guards play for the Raptors. VanVleet ranks seventh while Lowry is 12th and Delon Wright is 14th. Starting small forward OG Anunoby ranks 16th at his position.
The Raptors also rank in the top five in offensive efficiency (third) and defensive efficiency (fifth). Having established an identity as a defensive team, especially on the perimeter, it’s perhaps understandable that Lowry was the one player in the visiting locker room who took the sub-standard defensive showing personally.
“It was a disgraceful display of defense by us and we’ve got to be better than that,” said Lowry. “We’ve got to be more physical. They picked us apart and made a lot of threes. We’ve got to find a way to be a better defensive team.”
Lowry continued the theme of fine-tuning as the regular season winds down.
“I think we’ve just got to make adjustments on the fly as a team,” said Lowry. “We can score with the best of them, but they outscored us tonight. We got what we wanted offensively. We’re one of the top teams in scoring in the league, but we’re also a good defensive team.”
Lowry was clearly bothered by Toronto’s defensive showing, but Casey downplayed the importance of a single regular-season game.
“We’ve got to take these games and learn from them, and again learn from the situations where we have to be disciplined,” said Casey. “It’s not a huge thing. It’s situations where we are that we’ve got to learn from and be disciplined and not maybe take this step and over-help here. Because a team like that and a passer like James will make you pay.”
While the Raptors continue to gain experience and dial in the fine defensive details, Casey was insistent that his players should not hang their heads over falling short against Cleveland.
“Hopefully our guys understand that we’re right there,” said Casey.
The Raptors host the Brooklyn Nets tonight to open a three-game home stand that includes visits from the Clippers Sunday and the Nuggets Tuesday. After that, Toronto visits the Celtics March 31 followed by a return to Cleveland April 3 and a home game against Boston the next night. With three games in a row against the other two top-three teams in the East, the schedule presents plenty of opportunities for the Raptors to add defensive polish before the playoffs begin.
NBA Daily: Jaylen Brown Set To Return For Celtics
The Celtics finally got some good news on Thursday. Jaylen Brown’s return is imminent.
Finally, some good news for the Boston Celtics.
Jaylen Brown is set to return to action.
Brown has been M.I.A. since sustaining a concussion during the team’s 117-109 victory over the Minnesota Timberwolves back on March 8, but has traveled with the team to Portland and is expecting to return to the lineup on Sunday when the Celtics do battle with the Sacramento Kings.
As the Celts gear up for a playoff run, which they hope will result in them ending LeBron James’ reign atop the Eastern Conference, they’ve picked the wrong time to run into injury issues. Along with Brown, both Kyrie Irving and Marcus Smart have each been conspicuous by their absences, and the team could certainly use all of their pieces as they attempt to enter the postseason on a high note.
Fortunately for Boston, with the Toronto Raptors leading them by 4.5 games in the standings and the Celts ahead of the Cleveland Cavaliers by a comfortable six games, Brad Stevens’ team is enjoying the rare situation of having a playoff seed that appears to be somewhat locked in.
Still, with the team only able to go as far as its young rotation will carry it, Brown addressed the media on Thursday.
“I’m feeling a lot better. I’m just trying to hurry up and get back,” Brown said, as quoted by Celtics.com.
“I’m tired of not playing.”
Stevens is probably tired of him not playing, too.
As we head into the month of April, playoff-bound teams and conference contenders begin to think about playing into June, while the cellar-dwellers and pretenders begin to look toward the draft lottery and free agency.
What’s funny is that in the midst of the Raptors and their rise out East, the Celtics and their dominance has become a bit of a forgotten storyline. When Gordon Hayward went down on opening night, the neophytes from the Northeast were thought to be a decent team in the making whose ceiling probably wasn’t anywhere near that of the Cavs, the Raptors and perhaps even the Washington Wizards.
Yet through it all, with the impressive growth of Jaylen Brown, impressive rookie Jayson Tatum and the rise of Irving as a franchise’s lynchpin, the Celtics stormed out the games to the tune of a a 17-3 record. What made the strong start even more impressive was the fact that the team won 16 straight games after beginning the season 0-2.
Although they weren’t able to keep up that pace, they began the month of February having gone 37-15 and turned a great many into believers. With their spry legs, team-first playing style and capable leader in Irving, the Celtics, it was thought, were a true contender in the Eastern Conference — if not the favorite.
Since then, and after experiencing injuries to some of its key cogs, the team has gone just 11-8.
In the interim, it seems that many have forgotten about the team that tantalized the Eastern Conference in the early goings of the season.
Brown’s return, in one important respect, will signify a return to Boston’s prior self.
With Marcus Smart having recently undergone surgery to repair a torn tendon in his right thumb, he is expected to be out another five weeks or so, meaning that he’ll likely miss the beginning of the postseason.
As for Irving, although reports say that his ailing knee has no structural damage, everything the Celtics hope to accomplish begins and ends with him. FOX Sports 1’s Chris Broussard believes that it’s no slam dunk that Irving returns to action this season, but he’s in the minority. This team has simply come too far to not give themselves every opportunity to compete at the highest level, so long as doing so doesn’t jeopardize the long term health of any of the franchise’s cornerstones.
Make no mistake about it, the Celtics are far from a finished product. With their nucleus intact and flexibility preserved, they will have another offseason with which to tinker with their rotation pieces and plug away at building a champion.
But here and now, with what they’ve got, the Celtics are much closer than any of us thought they would be at this point.
And on Sunday, when Jaylen Brown rejoins his team in the lineup, to the delight of the Boston faithful, the Celtics will be that much closer.