Celtics are all smiles as Team Shamrock takes over USA Basketball training camp

Celtics are all smiles as Team Shamrock takes over USA Basketball training camp

LAS VEGAS — On the eve of Team USA training camp, Boston Celtics teammates Marcus Smart, Jaylen Brown, and Jayson Tatum were photographed walking side-by-side into a team meeting at their Las Vegas hotel.

The snapshot, showing the three players with wide smiles on their faces as they chatted while walking ahead of other campers, immediately became the poster for this Team USA experience. Playfully dubbed Team Shamrock by Smart, the Celtics are here in Vegas not only to represent their country on a global stage but to lay the foundation upon which they hope their own Redeem Team will be built next season.

"That [photo] wasn’t planned at all, by the way,” Smart said after Team USA’s first workout Monday on the campus of UNLV.

Yes, it seems these Celtics are just sorta gravitating towards each other now. Which is why, when their Team USA chores were complete on Sunday night, the trio of returning Celtics and newcomer Kemba Walker all ventured out to dinner together on the Vegas strip in hopes of building the chemistry that these players believe will be vital to the team’s overall success — particularly coming off the train wreck that was last season.

"We talked a little bit about basketball, nothing crazy, but really just knowing each other’s personality,” Smart said of the Team Shamrock dinner.

Added Brown: "It was fun. We got some good guys here, so we’re starting to build that chemistry early. Hanging out with Kemba, seeing what he’s like.”

Just how important is that chemistry for this year’s group?

"It’s huge,” said Smart. "Everybody knows that championship teams… or really great teams, they have a certain oomph to them, where you look at them and you’re like, ‘Those guys, they’ve been together for a while,’ or, ‘Those guys really know how to play well with one another.’ That’s all we’re trying to build.”

Walker spent much of Day 1 of training camp with a grin on his face, even as he showed some summer rust on his handles. There were some intriguing glimpses, like when he exploded to the basket for an and-1 layup late during an intrasquad scrimmage. But he missed a potential scrimmage-tying 3-pointer for the blue team at the buzzer — with Brown defending — as the white squad squeaked out a win (Brown promptly declared bragging rights over his teammates).

But Walker is clearly smitten to get to know his new teammates — with Team USA but especially with the Celtics.

“It was fun. Fun to be out there with those [Celtics] guys,” said Walker. "Those guys are super cool, fun to be around. I’m enjoying my time with them.”

Walker then reaffirmed how players like Tatum and Brown played heavily into his decision to sign in Boston. He noted how he talked to Tatum in Paris and Brown the year before in South Africa. He didn’t know Smart as well but gushed about him Monday while noting, "He’s one of those guys that you want to have on your team, or you have to have on your team.”

To be sure, there is always good vibes this time of year. And yet it’s hard to ignore the positivity around the Celtics this summer. This doesn’t feel like a team that saw two All-Stars depart for Eastern Conference rivals. There’s a genuine air of excitement about what lies ahead.

The Celtics have not shied away from admitting that last year did not go as anyone expected. Boston players have routinely taken the high road and not pinned their struggles on any one player and most insist the team simply never clicked.

Asked about the good vibes this summer, Brown’s response was particularly notable.

"It can only be positive. Last year, I can’t see it being any worse than that,” said Brown. "Coming out and being positive is everybody’s mindset.”

Pressed on the dysfunction that Smart had already admitted existed earlier this summer, Brown had no desire to look in the rearview mirror.

"I don’t really want to get into the logistics and talking about it,” said Brown. "It was dysfunctional, yes, but it’s over with now. I’m here with USA Basketball, I’m looking forward to what’s to come next, and we’ll see how the ball rolls.”

Long after practice had ended, Brown and Tatum remained on one of the practice courts inside the Mendenhall Center playing a rotating game of 1-on-1 that also featured Miami’s Bam Adebayo. The buzzer blew loudly twice after the allotted 30 minutes of media access time expired and Team USA coach Gregg Popovich playfully stomped onto the court to fetch Brown as reporters were peppering him with final questions long after the buzzer.

Popovich threw his arm around a smiling Brown and the two walked off together. When Walker burst through the side doors soon after, the fans waiting in the 112-degree for an autograph or a selfie roared for his arrival. Even more smiles. 

Yup, that’s been the theme of this trip so far.

"Very excited. Very excited [about next season],” said Brown. "I’m looking forward to it. We’ll see what happens but I’m excited. I’m really [trying to be] positive, not thinking about anything negative. Just coming forward and trying to be the best version of Celtics basketball.”

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Next step for Celtics: More poise under pressure

Next step for Celtics: More poise under pressure

BOSTON — The Boston Celtics’ fourth-quarter execution the past two games can be summed up in one sequence.

After clawing their way back into Thursday night’s visit from the Philadelphia 76ers, Boston found itself down 3 with 25.7 seconds to go with the ball. But the Sixers applied full-court pressure and inbounder Jayson Tatum panicked a bit while waiting for Jaylen Brown to race back to receive the pass. Brown ultimately got tangled with Josh Richardson and fell to the floor as Tatum’s pass sailed wide and bounced out of bounds near the Sixers' bench.

Painful as it would have been, the Celtics could have burnt their final timeout. They could have simply handled Philadelphia’s pressure better and not fumbled the ball — and the game — away.

Ultimately, great teams find a way to win this sort of game. Or the one 24 hours earlier when Boston kicked away a double-digit fourth-quarter lead in Indiana.

Save the excuses about available bodies and bad calls and whatever else you want to blame. The Celtics, seemingly unflappable in the face of in-game adversity early in the year, wilted twice against primary Eastern Conference rivals the past 48 hours.

Because of that, Boston arrives at a very random five-day December break in its schedule at a respectable 17-7 overall, but with a bit of a sour taste from dropping two games against potential East playoff foes. The Celtics have slipped to fourth in the conference with Philadelphia executing a leapfrog after Thursday’s 115-109 triumph at TD Garden.

“We just have to learn how to win,” said Kemba Walker, who scored a team-high 29 points against Philadelphia but got limited to 8 points with only one field goal after the intermission. All this one day after Boston wasted a 44-point outburst when Indiana rallied for a 122-117 victory.

"We have a lot of lapses during these games. We have stretches where we’re playing super well. And then we have lapses,” said Walker. “We just have times where we’re just — it’s bad. It just looks really bad. So we just have to tone that down a little bit, just try our best to put a 48-minute games together. And that’s going to take everybody.”

Maybe it’s greedy to suggest the Celtics should win these sort of games. After an opening-night loss in Philadelphia, Boston ripped off 10 straight wins and had won six of seven entering this week’s back-to-back. These young Celtics had been so cool under pressure that it’s been a bit jarring to see them get sloppy and shoot themselves in the foot with mental miscues.

"I think, going in, when you look at the schedule you know this is going to be a tough one but, once you’re in the heat of the moment, you’re not really feeling those effects,” said Gordon Hayward, who departed Wednesday’s game in Indiana after getting hit in the nose but didn’t look overly hindered against Philadelphia.

"I think two emotional losses for us. Certainly, it’s tough in games that go down to the wire. I felt like we had chances in both. But it is what it is. It’s a long season, it’s part of it. We’ve got to try to learn from it and move on but we can’t blame it on legs. We’re professional athletes. We should be able to handle that.”

Yes, Marcus Smart would help in these situations. But the Pacers were playing without Victor Oladipo, and the Sixers didn’t have Al Horford, who got a standing ovation when shown on the Philadelphia bench at the start of the second quarter.

The Celtics, if they want to be honest-to-goodness contenders, need to win these sort of games. It was one thing to find a silver lining when they took the Clippers to overtime last month on the road but the last two games have lacked the defensive focus displayed during much of Boston’s early-season success.

To be sure, there are positives to pluck from these two games. Daniel Theis and Enes Kanter held up surprisingly well while jousting with Joel Embiid. Philadelphia’s All-Star big man finished with 38 points on 12-of-21 shooting with 13 rebounds and 6 assists. He did a nice job dominating in 1-on-1 matchups and showcased his passing skills while generating open looks for teammates when Boston sent multiple bodies at him.

Kanter turned in his best game of the year and Theis played well for much of the night. The duo combined for 36 points and14 rebounds, essentially negating Embiid’s output (though his impact went far beyond those two stat categories).

The next step for these Celtics is consistently staying poised in high-pressure moments. Players have to avoid careless turnovers, they have to be willing to work for good looks on the offensive end, and they can’t lose focus on the defensive side.

While it’s obvious the Celtics never consider themselves out of a game, they’ve got to be better when things get tense.

"One thing I love about us is that we’re not quitting. We’re still fighting through adversity,” said Walker. "When things are getting rough we’re not putting our heads down, man. We’re competing at a very high level. So it can only go up from here.”

Unfortunately for Stevens, it’s plays like the inbounds turnover that will gnaw at him until the Celtics get back on the practice court next week. Boston doesn’t play another game until Wednesday night in Dallas.

That’s a lot of time to ponder how Thursday’s game got away. And Wednesday’s before it.

“We didn’t get the ball [inbounds],” Stevens said after Thursday’s loss. "I think that’s obviously -- you gotta be able to do those things in the biggest moments and we didn’t get that done.”

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Joel Embiid pays Celtics fans the ultimate compliment ... but still loves silencing them

Joel Embiid pays Celtics fans the ultimate compliment ... but still loves silencing them

BOSTON -- Few professional athletes embrace hate like Joel Embiid.

The Philadelphia 76ers big man channeled recent criticism from Charles Barkley and Shaquille O'Neal into a tour de force performance at TD Garden on Thursday night, tallying a season-high 38 points, 13 rebounds and six assists to hand the Boston Celtics their first home loss, 115-109.

Embiid also fed off the Garden crowd, which booed the big man heartily throughout the night.

The 25-year-old tipped his cap to the Boston faithful after the game, admitting the loudest crowd he's ever dealt with in an NBA game was the Garden during a second-round playoff game in 2018.

"They've got great fans. They're loud," Embiid said. "The loudest (game) I've ever been a part of was actually here in Game 2, two years ago in the playoffs.

"We were up by 20 and they made their run. It was loud and my ears were popping. That's the loudest (it's) ever been (for me) in an arena."

The Celtics stormed back to win that game 108-103, taking a 2-0 series lead over Philly en route to a five-game series win.

A year and a half later, Boston wasn't so lucky.

Embiid had been in a bit of funk over his last few games but seemed revitalized by the hostile Garden environment, relishing in making big plays like this dagger 3-pointer in the fourth quarter:

"They talk a lot of trash, and I like that," Embiid said. "It gets me going. I had that fun mentality about me tonight. Just reacting to them and playing off it."

Boston and Philly will meet twice more this season, with the Sixers coming to the Garden again on Feb. 1. Celtics fans can boo Embiid all they want, but they should be warned that it may not have the desired effect.

"Joel really set the tone of how we were going to play today," Sixers teammate Tobias Harris added. "His energy, his interactions at timeouts and dead balls: He was the man today."

Don't miss NBC Sports Boston's coverage of Celtics-Mavericks, which tips off Wednesday at 8:30 p.m. with Celtics Pregame Live, and then Mike & Scal have the call at 9:30 p.m. You can also stream the game on the MyTeams App.