Ainge: Question for 2019-20 Celtics is talent, not fit

Ainge: Question for 2019-20 Celtics is talent, not fit

BOSTON — One season after absurdly high expectations contributed to the derailment of his team’s season, Celtics president of basketball operations Danny Ainge wasn’t biting when asked to assess his team’s ability against the landscape of a new-look NBA.

“I know you guys like to make the prognostications, which I don’t like to do,” said Ainge. "I like to wait and see. I’m optimistic. I’m hopeful for guys stepping up and exceeding expectations, instead of making high expectations.”

What Ainge would relent is that, a year after Boston failed to get all its individual talent to play consistent team basketball, that the issue this season would simply be if players make the strides necessary to contend with the NBA elite.

"I think that last year’s questions were more based on how is it going to jell? There was not a question of how much talent we had,” said Ainge. "This year, the question is, are we good enough? And can players step up and take advantage of the opportunities that they’re given to become more elite?”

Ainge said he’s encouraged by what he’s seen in training camp and believes that the effort expended by the players up and down the roster this summer suggests that this team is eager to outkick the tempered expectations heaped upon them.

A handful of other key takeaways from Ainge’s preseason state of the union before the Celtics’ open practice Saturday at new-look TD Garden:

Ainge, who might have steered the Gordon Hayward hype train out of the station back in June, tried to reign things in a bit — though he ultimately admitted that Hayward might just be back to his pre-injury self.

"I think, right now, there’s been a lot of buzz about Gordon and his comeback and I’m worried that it’s getting a little out of hand,” said Ainge. "Like, I think he’s Gordon. He’s back to being Gordon. And we’re very excited about that. I sometimes worry, like, ‘Oh my gosh, they think it’s somebody else.’

"But I’m excited about Gordon. I’m excited about Kemba. Jaylen and Jayson had really good summers. They’ve looked really good in training camp. Obviously they have a great comfort level with the system. And Marcus [Smart]. So, we know who all of those guys are. I think there are lots of questions in lots of other places on the roster.”

Second-year big man Robert Williams didn’t do anything to slow the hype when asked about how Hayward.

"He’s just hungry, man,” said Williams. "I can put it simple as that, he’s just hungry. I was in Boston most of the summer. I got up at 9 or 9:30 to work out and Gordon would be walking out. So, he was in there every day, all day. I can say that I saw that. I’m saying that it also helped instill a work ethic in me. But Gordon, you know he’s hungry. He’s trying to get what he deserves.”

Asked if Hayward had found his old explosion, Williams added, "He just got it back man,” said Williams. "Yeah, he back.”

Echoing a common sentiment since last season, Ainge went to bat for his coach again entering the new season.

"I don’t know if [last season] was his first disappointing season, but maybe the toughest overall,” said Ainge. "If 49 wins is the worst season in your coaching career, you’re probably going to be OK. But Brad just keeps getting better. These experiences, he’s a young coach, works harder than anybody, very bright. I have all the confidence in the world that last year was a learning experience for him, just like all of our young players. 

"Like I said many many times before and I’ll continue to say, he’s the least of our worries. He’s prepared, and I think these experiences are going to make him a great coach.”

Ainge admitted that one of Boston’s biggest areas of concern is a new-look frontcourt that must fill the shoes of departed players like Al Horford and Aron Baynes.

There’s a lot of optimism around Williams as one of the players that might be able to step forward.

"Most of [the bigs] are new,” said Ainge. "I think Daniel [Theis] has the most experience of that group of guys with our group. I think he’s got a little bit of a head start, just mentally and emotionally and understanding what Brad wants. I think I can see some of the new-ness of the other guys. 

"I think Robert has taken big strides from last year to where he’s at. I think his work this summer, you can see it already. So that’s an advantage for him. Those are question marks that I’m not sure how good it’s all going to fit and work but I think, individually, they all can contribute."

The Celtics were the darlings of the NBA before last season, seemingly positioned for a long run as a legitimate title contender and considered the biggest threat to the still-intact Warriors.

Now? They’re regarded as a second-tier team in the East and the long-term outlook is murkier. Still, Ainge doesn’t feel pressure despite the 11 years that have passed since the Celtics’ last title in a win-now market.

 “I feel more pressure over an 8-foot putt on the 18th hole for a $5 Nassau right now,” said Ainge. "I think that, listen, the championship standard in Boston is well-documented. And we all know that. And that’s what we love about this. And we love the success of the other teams [in Boston]. And we love the success of the Boston Celtics and what they’ve done, and the people who have played here and been in uniforms here in our history. And so, I think that that feeling of high expectations is always good for us.”

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Forsberg: It's not la-la-land, these Celtics can truly compete with anyone

Forsberg: It's not la-la-land, these Celtics can truly compete with anyone

LOS ANGELES — Marcus Smart took the brunt of the fall on his right hip — the same hip he bruised earlier in this west coast road trip — then practically disappeared from sight while sliding into a courtside announcer's booth.

Most players wouldn’t have even suited up with what Smart’s been dealing with lately but this game meant too much. So here he was, in minute 40 of his night, flailing on the court trying desperately to give his team one last chance to steal a victory.

With the Clippers up three and looking for a knockout punch in overtime, Smart had been hounding Leonard above the 3-point arc, thwarting the simple handoff that Lou Williams was trying to complete. The dance with Leonard eventually extended out near the midcourt logo before Smart swatted away Williams’ pass attempt. Smart took one step, toed the sideline and then leapt, somehow throwing the ball off Leonard’s leg while crashing to the ground so viciously that courtside spectators covered their mouths at the sight.

It was the quintessence of Smart. And maybe these 2019-20 Celtics, too. This Boston team seems to have dug into the archives and emerged as the scrappy us-against-the-world hoopsters that previously typified the Brad Stevens era.

Smart’s hustle got them one final gasp but Kemba Walker’s 3-point offering got blocked by Leonard at the buzzer as a finally full-strength Clippers squad emerged with a 107-104 overtime triumph at Staples Center.

Smart, an ice bucket dispatched from in front of him, had a quick huddle with trainers after the game, then slipped on a pair of basketball shorts bearing his name and number and stepped in front of the cameras to offer a declaration.

"We believe truly that we can compete with anybody in this league,” said Smart before stressing how every possession matters and lamenting how Boston let a double-digit lead slip away.

"They’re really good, and we’ve just got to be a little better.”

Rarely will we buy the oft-floated notion that a team can find positives in a loss. No, wins are the goal in this league. But lingering behind the obvious disappointment that Celtics players expressed after Wednesday’s game was an understanding that they just went toe-to-toe with the league’s title favorite and nearly toppled them.

Or, as Smart told it, “We shot the ball very poorly, our defense wasn’t great, but we still were in the game — plain and simple. Clean up a couple things and it’s probably a different outcome and we’re talking different about what happened tonight.”

The Celtics might have actually learned more about themselves in this game than most nights during their double-digit winning streak. This game had been dubbed a measuring-stick game and, downplay it as the teams tried, Boston certainly seemed to get a better gauge on where it stands with Wednesday’s tilt.

The Celtics realized that Jayson Tatum is a bonafide late-game killer. Tatum, already building an impressive resume of crunch-time heroics this season, left Paul George crumpled on the Staples Center court with a step-back move before hitting an overtime-forcing 3-pointer with 13.1 seconds remaining in regulation.

Tatum finished with a game-high 30 points despite the fact that the Clippers swarmed him with the trio of Leonard, George, and Patrick Beverley. But Tatum still nearly willed his team to a win.

"I’ve always looked up to Kawhi and PG. Especially PG, that was one of my favorite players,” said Tatum. "This is the opportunity you look for, especially the bright lights, big stage, you don’t want to back down. You want to compete and show them that you belong out here and just earn their respect.”

The Celtics learned yet again that Smart is the heart and soul of this team. He not-so-subtly hinted on Wednesday morning that the Clippers showdown was all the reason he needed to duct tape his battered body together and play through those maladies. He spent the night hounding Leonard, George, and Williams. What’s more, Smart logged 40 total minutes, seconds less than team-leader Tatum, and chipped in 15 points on 7-of-20 shooting. That he took more shots than Walker (17) is surprising and Smart’s 3-point shooting remains in a mini funk (1 for 11) but he made multiple plays in crunch time that at least gave Boston a chance to steal the win.

The Celtics learned that they can be competitive with an elite opponent even when Walker is off his game. Walker made only 4 of 17 shots for 13 points. He had nine rebounds but committed six turnovers over 38:44. Jaylen Brown had a poor shooting night as well.

"I just made a lot of bad decisions tonight,” said Walker. "I've just got to be better at the end of the day, be better for my teammates. But we played hard. We did everything we can do to still stay in the game and try to win the game but, as an individual, I definitely would love to have been better for my teammates.”

The Celtics learned that their big-man issue might not be as pressing as some make it seem. Daniel Theis continues to give this team solid minutes. He’ll land in the highlights because Leonard put him on a fourth-quarter poster but Theis grabbed 14 rebounds including seven on the offensive glass to keep possessions alive.

It was fair to be skeptical of Boston's potential before the LA visit and now it seems safe to suggest that Boston might just be a legitimate threat to top-tier East foes Milwaukee and Philadelphia.

These Celtics have heart. They have grit. They don’t have a very big margin for error but, the way they play, they won’t ever be out of a game. Yes, like Smart said, this team truly can compete with anybody in the league.



Don’t miss NBC Sports Boston's coverage of Celtics-Nuggets, which tips off Friday at 8 p.m. ET with Celtics Pregame Live, then Mike & Scal have the call of the game at 9 p.m. You can also stream the game through the MyTeams App.

Celtics-Clippers Instant Overreactions: C's need more out of Kemba Walker in first half

Celtics-Clippers Instant Overreactions: C's need more out of Kemba Walker in first half

The Boston Celtics and Los Angeles Clippers both were slow out the gate on Wednesday night, but they ended up putting on a show.

It was the Clippers coming away with the victory in an overtime thriller, 107-104. Jayson Tatum starred for the C's and drilled a clutch 3-pointer to force OT, though Boston just couldn't finish the job as a poor shooting night ultimately cost them.

Here are three instant overreactions from the Celtics' loss, which brings them to 11-3 on the season.

1. Kemba Walker needs to get going in the first half.

Verdict: Not an overreaction

Walker has been excellent to begin his Celtics career, but slow starts have been an issue. That was the case again in Wednesday's contest as in the first half he was just 1-of-7 from the field with three points.

Usually, Walker's huge fourth quarters make up for his first-half woes. This time, it didn't get much better for him as he finished with 13 points (4-for-17 shooting) and six turnovers, including a critical one with 20 seconds remaining in the fourth.

Don't panic about Walker or anything. It'd just be nice to see more dominant performances from start to finish out of the C's star guard.

2. Brad Wanamaker is the real deal off the bench.

Verdict: Not an overreaction

Wanamaker has come up big off the bench for the Celtics so far this season, and Wednesday's win marked his most impressive performance yet.

The second-year pro out of Pittsburgh finished with 14 points, trailing only Jayson Tatum (30) and Marcus Smart (15) in scoring for Boston. He also added five rebounds, three assists, and a steal in 27 minutes.

NBC Sports Boston's own A. Sherrod Blakely saw Wanamaker's big night coming:

3. Time to worry about 3-point shooting woes.

Verdict: Overreaction

The Celtics went a putrid 1-for-18 from 3 during the first half with the aforementioned Wanamaker being the only C's player to drill one from beyond the arc.

They finished 12-for-45. Definitely not ideal, but bouncing back to hit a few clutch shots after that abysmal first half was encouraging. Just take this one by Jayson Tatum for example:

Shooters shoot, and plenty of big shooting nights lie ahead for this 3-point heavy Celtics squad. Plus, the fact they were even in this game with such a horrendous offensive night speaks volumes.

Next up for the Celtics is a matchup vs. the Denver Nuggets on Friday night.

Don’t miss NBC Sports Boston's coverage of Celtics-Nuggets, which tips off Friday at 8 p.m. ET with Celtics Pregame Live, then Mike & Scal have the call of the game at 9 p.m. You can also stream the game through the MyTeams App.