Drama-free Celtics keep focus on title quest

Drama-free Celtics keep focus on title quest

BOSTON — While much of the NBA world remained fixated on the Jimmy Butler drama in Minnesota, the Celtics quietly went through another preseason workout Friday where the most polarizing topic at media access might have been Gordon Hayward defending his use of a personal ping-pong paddle in matches in the team's game room at the Auerbach Center.

"You have your own golf clubs, you have your own tennis racket, like, it’s the same thing,” said Hayward, not making a particularly convincing argument for the personal paddle that has helped him dominate his teammates.

That Hayward asserting his ping-pong dominance is one of the most notable topics four days before the start of the 2018-19 regular season only hammers home just how drama free the start of the season has been for these Celtics.

Kyrie Irving’s uncertain future was supposed to hover like a small dark cloud over the season and rumors circulated all summer about his desire to play either (1) in New York and/or (2) alongside Butler. Then a very Kumbaya Kyrie arrived for training camp looking more peaceful than ever, proclaimed his love for all things Boston, and unexpectedly told season-tickets holders at an open practice that he planned to re-sign here next summer.

“I thought that was super cool,” Celtics owner Wyc Grousbeck said with a smile at the Shamrock Gala on Thursday night.

Earlier in the evening, a suit shorts-and-shades-clad Terry Rozier stepped in front of the microphones and was asked about his own uncertain future and the status of his talks with the Celtics about a possible extension of his rookie deal.

Rozier could have proudly declared that he’s a starter-level point guard in this league after what he did in Irving’s absence in the playoffs. He could have dismissed the idea of an extension while knowing full well a heftier payday awaits next summer when deep-pocketed suitors will line up for a slice of Scary Terry.

Instead, he shifted the focus to the team.

"We’ve got our first [regular-season] game coming up. That’s big for us,” said Rozier. "We haven’t been playing good in the preseason, so we’ve been trying to focus on us and I’ve been trying to take the pressure off the extension thing. So I’m focused on the team.”

These Celtics are, very intentionally, boring. Drama is typically handled behind closed doors and the team works hard to ensure that players keep the focus on team goals instead of individual agendas.

This is not a team short on opinions, particularly not with the likes of Marcus Smart, Marcus Morris, Irving, or Rozier. This is a confident group that isn’t afraid to tell you as much.

And yet players rarely veer off course, following the example set from the highest level.

The Celtics even endured a couple of notable legal matters this preseason with the arrest of guard Jabari Bird on domestic violence charges and a guilty plea for bribery for assistant coach Jerome Allen. The Celtics were able to distance themselves from Bird, who is not with the team while the NBA determines his status, and Allen’s ownership of a situation that occurred before he joined the Celtics became a teachable moment to the team’s younger players.

One of the things that Irving has often stressed since he arrived in Boston is how much he appreciates the openness of Boston brass, from ownership to the front office to coach Brad Stevens. And a drama-free environment — something he hasn’t always enjoyed in his NBA career — is undoubtedly part of what sold Irving on committing to the Celtics long-term.

Will things remain this way? There will be blips during the season. If Boston sputters out of the gate amid lofty expectations, it will be interesting to see how players react. If Stevens can’t find playing time for everyone, there could be some grumbles about roles.

But the Celtics are virtually drama free as they prepare to set sail on the regular season. Everyone is pulling in the same direction toward a common goal.

"I think that, as you can tell, we're getting closer as a group, but we have something special here in terms of the environment we create,” Irving said.

Echoed Grousbeck: “This bond between these guys I think is the real deal. I've seen 16 rosters now and this team is knit together. They're a real team and they're taking a great approach to this season.”

Things could be a lot different. Just ask Grousbeck. He was the one who got booed by season ticket holders at the 2016 draft party when he announced that the Celtics had selected Jaylen Brown with the No. 3 pick. Fans eager for this team to launch into full-on contender mode had wanted the Celtics to trade that pick for a more certified star such as Butler.

Now, Brown is part of a young core that could ensure that these Celtics remain heavy on contention and light on drama for the foreseeable future.


Hindsight 2020: Would more Jayson Tatum have pushed Celtics to NBA Finals in 2018?

Hindsight 2020: Would more Jayson Tatum have pushed Celtics to NBA Finals in 2018?

Jayson Tatum was in his basketball bag, giving LeBron James and the Cleveland Cavaliers all they could handle. 

He was scoring in an efficient manner (24 points on 9-for-17 shooting), rebounding the ball (seven rebounds) and making big shots.

And he was doing this on one of the biggest stages of them all: Game 7 of the 2018 Eastern Conference Finals.

A 3-pointer by Tatum put the Celtics ahead 72-71 with six minutes to play, a shot that capped off a Tatum surge in which he had scored seven of Boston’s last nine points. 

And then … nothing. 

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He took only one shot after that and missed it, going scoreless for the rest of the game.

The Celtics that year were a team that leaned on whoever had the hot hand. 

But on this particular night, they needed help figuring out who that was in the closing minutes — and in hindsight, head coach Brad Stevens should have stepped in and done more to implore his team to get the ball to Tatum in a better position to score. 

However Stevens stuck to what had worked so well for so long with this group: letting this young band of ballers figure out on their own who to lean on when it mattered most, as contributions seemed to come from a new player on a nightly basis.

But on this stage with all that was at stake, they absolutely needed Stevens to implore them to go to Tatum … a lot. 

And now, two years later, the domino effect of that game’s outcome is still felt. 

Brad Stevens has been at the helm for seven years here in Boston and ranks among the franchise’s winningest coaches ever. 

But in that Game 7 in 2018, the Celtics were less than six minutes away from getting to the NBA Finals, which is as close as this franchise has come to winning a title during Stevens' reign. 

When you look at the overall body of work since Stevens arrived in Boston in 2013, there are very few instances in which a decision or non-decision on his part stands out in a bad way. 

But this was one of those times. 

Yes, the Celtics were playing without Kyrie Irving and Gordon Hayward, who were both sidelined with injuries. 

And yes, there are undeniable benefits in having so many young players step their game up despite being without a pair of All-Stars in Irving and Hayward. 

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But as we’ve seen here in Boston and throughout the NBA, getting to the NBA Finals is not guaranteed for any team regardless of how much promise they show going forward.

And to be as close as they were at that time, there’s no way to completely move on from that sting of missing out — other than to take that next step and actually reach the Finals. 

You can go through all the missed shots and free throws and blown assignments defensively and find factors that led to Boston coming up short in that game.

But none looms larger than the Celtics' inability to put Tatum in a better position to score the ball in the final minutes. 

While the pain from that loss has in many ways helped Boston’s young core grow, the gains for the Celtics and the Tatum-Brown tandem would have been even greater had that group as they were constructed advanced to the Finals. 

When it comes to players making plays when it counts, of course it’s ultimately on them to deliver. 

But efforts must be made to best position players to come through in the clutch, the one thing in hindsight the Celtics could have done a better job in what was — and still is — the toughest loss for this franchise in the Stevens era.

2020 NBA Mock Draft 4.0: Teams still on schedule for June

2020 NBA Mock Draft 4.0: Teams still on schedule for June

The NBA season may be at a standstill, but that won’t slow NBA teams down from preparing for the upcoming draft that’s currently slated for June 25. 

While this draft is short on star power like this year’s NBA rookie class, which includes Zion Williamson of New Orleans, Ja Morant in Memphis and New York’s R.J. Barrett, all of whom turned in strong first seasons in the NBA, there’s still plenty of talent to pick over in the coming weeks. 

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And the Celtics will get their shot — make that shots, plural — with three first-round picks this year. 

Here’s a look at the Celtics’ possible draft plans as well as those of the rest of the NBA in the latest NBC Sports Boston NBA Mock Draft. 

Click here for the gallery.