Improving defense remains a priority for Brad Stevens, Celtics

Improving defense remains a priority for Brad Stevens, Celtics

BOSTON — Ranking at or near the top of the list of concerns the Boston Celtics have about this upcoming season, is their defense. 

And with one preseason game under their belts, all the concerns about the team’s defense? 

They’re real, folks. 

Very. Real. 

Boston escaped with a 107-106 win over Charlotte in the preseason opener for both teams, so for the defense to be a bit disjointed out of the gates, isn’t that unusual. 

But after reviewing film, it was clear to head coach Brad Stevens that the times when the defense struggled, had little to do with X’s and O’s. 

Prior to leaving for Orlando on Tuesday afternoon, Stevens said that in practice, they really hammered playing with more intensity on defense.

“Be better in our pick-and-roll coverages. I thought they were poor in the exhibition game,” Stevens said. “And then, making good decisions playing with that tempo.”

Part of that decision-making Stevens was referring to, involves doing a better job of communicating on the floor. 

“Reading when we need to be attached to our guy when they’re coming out of corner or when we need to pull over … stuff like that usually happens in your first preseason game,” said Gordon Hayward.  

And with it being the first game, the scouting report wasn’t nearly as useful as it usually is due to so many players with new teams in different roles running different sets offensively that may not necessarily be holdovers from the previous season.

“We’ll get better at it,” Hayward said. 

We’ll find out on Friday when they travel to Orlando to take on the Orlando Magic, who will have played a couple of games by then. 

Unlike the Hornets, the Magic bring back most of their core players from a year ago, including All-Star center Nikola Vucevic, sixth-man stud Terrence Ross, as well as a pair of blossoming wings in Aaron Gordon and Jonathan Isaac. 

Orlando establishing that continuity only increases the degree of difficulty the Celtics will have in finding a path towards victory on Friday. 

And while players will tell you they are not consumed much by winning or losing in the preseason because the minutes of the top players are limited, the goal every time they step on the floor is their part in getting a victory. 

“You want to score and show what you can do, always,” Boston’s Kemba Walker told NBC Sports Boston’s A. Sherrod Blakely. “But you always want to win, always. It doesn’t matter if you play two minutes or the whole game, you always want your team to come out on top. That never changes.”

For the Celtics, hopefully the same won’t be said for their defense, which we knew going into the season would be challenged in ways we have not seen recently. 

Boston traded Aron Baynes to Phoenix, ridding itself of one of the league’s premier interior defenders who has ranked among the league leaders in defensive rating the last two seasons with the Celtics. 

Al Horford decided to opt-out of the final year of his contract with Boston, and went on to sign with the Philadelphia 76ers. 

With Horford and Baynes last season, the Celtics' defensive rating of 107.0 ranked sixth in the NBA. Boston also ranked in the top-10 in a number of other defensive categories such as steals (8.6, 4th in the league) and blocks (5.3, 10th in the NBA) per game. 

Boston did not find a replacement for either player, but instead decided to go with a bigs-by-committee approach this season which includes Enes Kanter, Vincent Poirier, rookie first-round pick Grant Williams as well as holdovers Robert Williams III and Daniel Theis. 

All showed signs of promise in Boston’s win over the Hornets, but there were clear and undeniable shortcomings, too. 

Dismissing it as first-game jitters doesn’t do the Celtics and their efforts to be a better-than-average defense any good this season. 

They need to continue to focus on improving at that end of the floor if they are to have a season that will be deemed a successful one when it’s all said and done. 

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Celtics' Semi Ojeleye gives positive reaction to reported NBA return proposal

Celtics' Semi Ojeleye gives positive reaction to reported NBA return proposal

The NBA's Board of Governors reportedly is expected to approve a 22-team return plan during Thursday's meeting, which would pave the way for the 2019-20 season to resume later in the summer.

Under the reported proposal, each of the remaining 22 teams would play eight more regular season games before a 16-team playoff commences. 

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The Boston Celtics currently are the No. 3 seed in the Eastern Conference playoff race. They also are one of three teams in the East that's already clinched a postseason berth. It's not a perfect plan, but it does allow players some regular season games to get ready for the grind of the playoffs. The proposal gives teams on the playoff bubble a chance to earn a postseason berth as well.

Boston Celtics forward Semi Ojeleye joined Wednesday night's "Arbella Early Edition" to discuss the proposed return plan and the challenge players will have in getting ready to restart the season.

"I think it's a good plan," Ojeleye said. "Obviously, the entire pandemic we've been focused on keeping people healthy, and keeping the players and the fans healthy, that's why we shut (the season) down. I think what we're doing now, easing back into workouts with a few people in the gym is a good plan. Hopefully, going forward we keep people healthy as well."

What has Ojeleye been doing to stay in shape?

"I've been blessed to have a little outdoor space," he said. "I got my hands on some indoor equipment -- some bikes and weights. From there, it's really just about not skipping days. There have been a lot of days where I'm like -- I can't hoop, but I knew I could try to get my cardio in and try get my lifts in. That's what I've been focused on, and hopefully it pays off."

There's been a lot of debate over how much time players need to get into game shape. Some people think a month or even a few weeks is too much, but the long layoff hasn't been like a normal offseason where players are able to play pickup games and train however they choose. Many players have had limited access to workout equipment during the COVID-19 pandemic as gyms and team facilities have been closed.

Ojeleye explained why players need plenty of time to prepare their body and mind for the remainder of the regular season and the ensuing playoffs.

'It's going to be tough. Different guys have different access to weights and facilities," Ojeleye said. "And guys are at different stages of their careers. Some guys are coming off injuries, some guys have had nagging injuries during the year and they've taken a break. Everyone is going to need a little bit more time. I'd say, at least a few weeks at minimum for everyone to get back in shape and to get that feel. As a team, we need our chemistry, and that's going to take time as well."

The Celtics, despite making several roster changes before the 2019-20 season, quickly developed a strong chemistry. While there are reasons to be optimistic the C's will find this chemistry again soon, the process doesn't happen overnight, especially when these players have been unable to play basketball with their teammates during this pandemic.

What NBA's return-to-action plan means for the Celtics

What NBA's return-to-action plan means for the Celtics

When the NBA season was put on pause in March, the timing could not have been much better for the Boston Celtics. 

Wins were getting harder to come by (they had lost three of their last five), the jacuzzi-hot play of Jayson Tatum was starting to cool off some and Kemba Walker was headed towards a stretch of “strategic rest” days off because of knee soreness. 

And just like the rest of the NBA is fired up about the potential return to play reportedly as early as the end of late July, the Celtics are an eager bunch to restart the season as well. 

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And they should be for a number of reasons. 

First and foremost, there’s a very real chance that they can move up in the standings if the league adopts the reported return-to-play model which includes eight regular season games before the playoffs. 

Currently third in the East, the Celtics would begin the postseason against Philadelphia if the league went straight into the playoffs — an idea that hasn’t garnered a ton of support from owners or players. 

An eight-game slate of games would provide Boston with enough opportunities to potentially move ahead of Toronto and secure the No. 2 seed in the East. 

The way the standings look now, the potential for movement is great for many teams. 

Boston (43-21) trails the Raptors (46-18) by three games in the standings. Behind the Celtics you find the Heat (41-24) who are 2.5 games back.

The next closest teams to Boston beyond those two are Indiana and Philadelphia (both 39-26) who each trail Boston by 4.5 games. 

For the Celtics’ sake, moving up from their current draft position and avoiding a first-round matchup with Philadelphia would be the preferred path to take this postseason. 

The Sixers, one of the bigger disappointments this season, will feature a healthy Joel Embiid and Ben Simmons, making them a much tougher foe come playoff time. 

For the Celtics, the alternative if they move up would be a Brooklyn Nets team that’s expected to play this postseason without Kyrie Irving or Kevin Durant who have both been out recovering from injuries. 

There’s also a chance that Boston would face the Indiana Pacers in the first round if the C's remain as the Eastern Conference’s No. 3 seed which, similar to facing Philadelphia, would provide a tough first-round matchup. 

The reboot to the season also allows more time for the Celtics to adjust to what’s shaping up to be a new pecking order. 

While Walker is the team’s most proven, most decorated talent, there’s no escaping the inevitable rise of Tatum as the face of the franchise (if he’s not already there). 

As the season wore on, his ascension was undeniable. Tatum began the season as a player the Celtics were hoping to see blossom into a big-time talent with the departures of Irving (Brooklyn) and Al Horford (Philadelphia).

Following his first All-Star appearance in February, Tatum averaged 29.9 points, 7.9 rebounds and 3.1 assists while shooting 47.2 percent from the field and 46.8 percent on 3’s. His ability to pick up where he left off would go far in Boston’s quest to build off the successes they had this past season. 

As for Walker, he had missed some games and played limited minutes in others shortly before the season was paused thanks to knee soreness.

The extended downtime without games or practice should allow Walker to return to action revived and refreshed.

And him being healthy combined with Tatum’s improved play gives the Celtics a potent 1-2 punch as they inch closer to rebooting the system and in doing so, restarting their journey towards what they believe will be a deep postseason run.