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Forsberg: Celtics first priority should be to become embraceable again

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Expectations were the bane of the Brad Stevens coaching era.

While the Celtics routinely exceeded low projections under Stevens, the end of his coaching tenure saw the team fall woefully short of championship desires in two of his final three seasons.

Each of those seasons had obstacles that prevented the Celtics from reaching their full potential . The 2018-19 team was overstocked with talent but no one seemed to be pulling in the same direction. The 2020-21 Celtics battled injuries, COVID, and simply lacked most of the hallmarks of the grit-filled Stevens era.

Hope springs eternal and so the Celtics -- along with the other 29 NBA teams in the league -- will gush about the potential of the 2020-21 campaign when the team huddles for Media Day chores on Monday.

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Training camp starts Tuesday. Boston’s first preseason game -- a visit from the Orlando Magic -- tips on October 4. It’s time to get excited about basketball again. And not just because of the calendar.

The Celtics should be fun again.

Maybe that’s because expectations will be more reasonable this season. Coming off a season in which Boston stumbled to a .500 record and needed a win in the play-in tournament to simply punch its postseason pass, the high side of most projections seemingly has Boston fighting for a first-round playoff series at home.

We can’t tell you with great confidence if the Celtics will earn a top spot in the beefed up East. Brooklyn has the most talent in the league by a wide margin, Milwaukee is the defending champ, Philadelphia should be in the mix regardless of how the Ben Simmons situation plays out, and Atlanta is going to be yearning for more after its surge to the East finals. The Heat are always in the mix, the Knicks added Boston’s starting backcourt. The Wizards and Hornets should be more consistent than a year ago.

The Celtics can reasonably fall anywhere in spots 3-10 in the East and it wouldn’t surprise us, particularly with a new-look roster and a first-year head coach.

But we feel pretty confident suggesting this squad will be a lot more fun to watch. To be fair, it’d be extremely hard for the team to be more painful to watch than last year when the Celtics showed virtually no ability to respond to adversity. It was one of the rare instances that a team didn’t take the Stevens mold, shunning ball movement for me-first basketball and rarely digging in on the defensive end.

After his surprise elevation to president of basketball operations this summer, Stevens crafted the sort of team that he’d love to coach -- all while maintaining a flexibility to add impact talent down the road. He shipped out offensive potential in the hunt for defensive DNA, turning Kemba Walker and Evan Fournier into Al Horford and Josh Richardson. He paid Marcus Smart and Robert Williams while banking that security will allow both players to flourish in larger roles. Stevens overhauled the bench, cutting ties with younger players that he couldn’t always trust and bringing in established veterans like Dennis Schroder and Juancho Hernangomez. Stevens got a known commodity and increased the good locker room vibes by bringing back Enes Kanter.

How will it play out on the court? Who knows. So much hinges on pillars Jayson Tatum and Jaylen Brown. Can they grow on the court as playmakers, and off the court as leaders? They’ve accomplished many of the individual goals that young players yearn to accomplish, including both reaching All-Star status, but now it’s time for them to make the toughest leap as superstars who routinely make those around them better.

If that happens, Boston will exceed expectations. They’ll be in the mix at the top of the East playoff bracket.

But even if there’s growing pains along the way, the Celtics can win back a fan base that is eager to wrap its arms around them again. If first-year coach Ime Udoka can get Boston to lean into defense, share the basketball, and show a potential to grow, then the fan base will be at peace with however the record shakes out.

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Stevens baked in enough flexibility to chase another impact talent, the sort that might put this team on more even footing with the elite of the East. There are no guarantees that addition will happen this season or even next year. But the Celtics are at least in a position to pounce if the right move materializes.

Until then, the focus is on growth. From the Jays, to Smart as the starting point guard, to Williams as an every-night starter, to recent draftees making leaps, the process should be more important than the results. That’s not always easy to embrace when a team has 17 championship banners hanging above its court.

But, after last season, the expectations have been reset. Even if it’s a new role, this is where Stevens tends to thrive.

And throughout the summer we couldn’t stop thinking back to what Stevens said in the aftermath of that head-shaking 2018-19 season. He wasn’t obsessed with getting back to competing for a title. Stevens repeatedly said he just wanted a team that Boston could be proud of again. A team that was willing to get their hands dirty and play the right way.

This Celtics team has the potential to do that. And that’s the only expectation that should matter at the start of the year: Getting back to being a team that Boston can embrace.