Celtics

Gregory striving to be a starter

704264.jpg

Gregory striving to be a starter

FOXBORO -- Steve Gregory walked onto the Gillette Stadium turf Thursday for his introduction to the New England media. He stretched his face toward the sun contentedly for a moment.

"Just like San Diego," he smiled.

Even after six seasons with the Chargers, don't think he'll hate Massachusetts in January; Gregory grew up in Staten Island, New York. He knows what the region is like -- that was part of the Patriots appeal.

"It's been great," he said of his new home. "Came back out here to the East Coast with my wife, and I'm excited. I'm excited to be here. Thankful to the Kraft family, coach Belichick and the organization for the opportunity to come out here and help this organization try and win a championship."

Yes, that last part is pretty important, too. The Syracuse grad gushed about how thrilled he is to move closer to home, but Gregory made it clear his focus is football.

"Just the chance to be a part of this organization. It's a winning organization," he said. "Everyone's goal is to win a Super Bowl, and I know that this gives me a great opportunity to do that."

In what capacity? Though Gregory has been used primarily as a defensive back, he also has experience on special teams. Considering New England's "the more you can do" mentality, that's not a bad thing.

Gregory knows it.

"Special teams -- that's the way I made my way in this league. I came in undrafted and really worked hard to work my way onto a roster," he said. "I did that in San Diego by playing hard on special teams; played all four. Did that for my first two years before I started to build up into playing time on defense. It's important. Special teams is part of the game and I look forward to playing and contributing on special teams as well."

His main focus will be elsewhere. The Patriots secondary needs help this offseason -- plenty of it -- and Gregory can play both safety positions as well as in the slot. His three-year, 7.05 million deal testifies to faith in his ability.

The 5-foot-11, 195-pound back is returning the favor with confidence.

"I think any player in this league . . . You strive yourself to be a starter in this league, you approach it that way. I'll approach practice, I'll approach the offseason, I'll approach everything to be a starter. I think that's the only way you can go about it. I think every player should go about it that way. The competition on the field will let it stand where it stands."

WATCH: Celtics vs. Hawks

stream-celtics-hawks_0.jpg

WATCH: Celtics vs. Hawks

Tune into NBC Sports Boston to watch the Celtics play the Hawks in Atlanta. You can also click here to watch the Celtics livestream presented by Nissan on the NBC Sports App. Coverage begins at 7 p.m. with Celtics Pregame Live Presented by ACE Ticket.

- Game preview: C's defense looks to keep up historic pace

- Channel Finder: Make sure you know where to watch

[SHOP: Gear up, Celtics fans!]

NBC SPORTS BOSTON SCHEDULE

Celtics-Hawks preview: C's defense looks to keep up historic pace

usatsi_10396353.jpg

Celtics-Hawks preview: C's defense looks to keep up historic pace

As the wins continue to pile up for the Boston Celtics, so does the praise and adulation from others throughout the league. 

It’s a double-edged sword if you think about it. 

Acknowledging how good the Celtics are, is indeed a sign of respect. 

But it also means Boston plays every game with a large target on its back unlike any of Brad Stevens’ previous Celtics teams. 

And that means every game they play, even those like tonight’s matchup at Atlanta where they will be heavily favored, are dangerous matchups.

Because for some teams, the next best thing to competing against the champ (Golden State) is facing the team with the best record who just knocked off the champ. 

That will be one of the dynamics at work tonight when the Celtics (14-2) kick off a three-game road trip against a trio of sub-.500 teams beginning with the Hawks (3-12).

Boston has shown tremendous focus and attention to detail during their 14-game winning streak. But in that span, the Celtics have never had a trio of teams right behind each other that struggled as much as the Hawks, the Miami Heat and the Dallas Mavericks have this season. 

Not including games played on Friday, Boston’s next three opponents are a combined 11-33. 

All three of those teams would love to be the one to knock off the Celtics, the kind of victory that could significantly shift the direction of their respective franchises from their current downward spin. 

Meanwhile, the Celtics will look to continue to play with the kind of defensive temperament that has catapulted them to the top of the NBA’s defensive standings in several categories. 

“The way they’re beating teams it ain’t pretty,” a league executive texted NBC Sports Boston. “But they win. Last I checked, that’s what matters most.”

And that success has to a large degree, put a bigger bullseye on the Celtics than ever. 

“Now that we have a reputation, I think everyone is coming for us,” said Boston’s Jaylen Brown. “Now we have to come play even harder, and I think we can do that. I think we are more than capable.”

Especially if they continue to defend at a level we haven’t seen in years. 

Boston has a league-best defensive rating of 95.4. A key component in Boston’s strong play defensively has been their ability to win the battle of the boards. They come into tonight’s game with a .530 rebounding percentage which is second in the league to Portland (.539).

And that defense, while praised for how it functions collectively, it also consists of some pretty good individual defenders as well. 

Among guards averaging at least 20 minutes per game, Boston has four players ranked among the top 10 in defensive rating (Marcus Smart, 93.5 defensive rating, 2nd); Jaylen Brown (93.6, 3rd); Terry Rozier (95.0, 5th) and Kyrie Irving (96.4, 8th). 

When you look at forwards, Brown headlines a trio of forwards that includes himself, Al Horford (94.2, 3rd) and Jayson Tatum (96.1, 7th). 

Aron Baynes has the best defensive rating (90.6) among centers, followed by Horford (94.2).

“Our guys are locked in and really trying and again we can really play some pretty ugly basketball at times,” Stevens said. “But I do think that we are competing which is really good.”