BOSTON – The usual Boston Celtics preseason get-together for fans at the TD Garden earlier this month was anything but the norm when Kyrie Irving dropped the bomb of all bombs on the crowd in declaring his intent to re-sign with the Celtics when he becomes an unrestricted free agent in July.
The announcement did more than just provide Boston with a verbal commitment from their 26-year-old, five-time All-Star that he wants to be with the franchise for many years to come.
It took what was going to be one of the biggest questions repeatedly asked all season of this team – where was Irving going to play next year? - off the table.
Just as important, it took an already close team to another level of togetherness with the knowledge that their leader, Irving, wasn’t going anywhere anytime soon.
And in many ways the same can be said for this Boston Celtics team which begins this season as arguably the favorite to come out of the East.
Based upon how this roster is structured now and in the foreseeable future, Boston’s place among the game’s top teams won’t change anytime soon.
But for now, the focus is solely on this season, a season in which the Celtics appear to be the stiffest challenger to the Golden State dynasty that includes a trio of NBA titles in the last four years.
“Everyone is committed to each other,” said Celtics head coach Brad Stevens. “That’s a great feeling. Certainly, the idea that we have a goal we’re all chasing after and we’re together, is great. It’s always good to have that reaffirmed.”
Irving and Hayward return
As important as Irving’s commitment was to the team, him being healthy this season is even more valuable. Irving missed all of the playoffs last season when an infection was discovered in his surgically repaired left knee from 2015, resulting in Irving needing the hardware in his knee to be removed.
Boston showed that they can win at a high level without him by advancing all the way to the Eastern Conference finals. But for them to bring home Banner 18 or at least compete for it in the NBA Finals, there’s little doubt that it’ll have to come about with a healthy Irving on the floor.
And he’s more than up for the challenge.
“Absolutely. I’m ready to kill. I’m ready to kill,” Irving said. “It’s exciting. Because of that excitement from your teammates, it only gets me more excited. I expect the same thing from them. You think about how much talent we have and how special we are, as individuals. But the attitude and the camaraderie and the environment that the Boston Celtics have created over a tradition of years is something that I’m grateful to be a part of.
MORE FROM A. SHERROD BLAKELY
Irving added, “It’s about a brotherhood. Great players before you have sacrificed. Great players before you have committed to winning a championship and what that entails. Great players before you have done that. So why are you any different? There is no special treatment for that. You’re going to be who you are and we support that. We want you to be the best you can be.”
That brotherhood has been especially important for Gordon Hayward, who will return to the lineup after missing all but the first five minutes of last season after suffering a left ankle/left leg injury in the season opener.
The steadfast support of the coaching and medical staff, as well as his teammates, has been important to Hayward’s return to the floor.
“All of those guys have been great, supporting and encouraging me since the injury,” Hayward said. “But I’m really looking forward to getting back out there.”
And he’s going into the regular season coming off what he and his teammates have described as his best week of practice, something that bodes well for him to hit the ground running in the opener, right?
Celtics head coach Brad Stevens said Hayward will be limited to 25 or so minutes early in the season, a means of not rushing him back into game action too soon, after having not played in nearly a year.
“For sure a little anxious, a little nervous,” Hayward said of his first game of the season. “It’s been a year since real basketball. Yeah, looking forward to it.”
Bench with Attitude
With Hayward’s minutes limited, that will likely mean more usage from the Celtics bench, dubbed by Marcus Morris as the B.W.A. – Bench with Attitude.
As one of the leaders of Boston’s second unit along with Terry Rozier and Marcus Smart, having a nickname with ‘attitude’ in it seems appropriate.
“We definitely play with an edge, kind of feisty, with an attitude when we’re out there,” Rozier told NBC Sports Boston. “We’re confident in ourselves that whoever we play, wherever we play, our bench is gonna make an impact.”
Last season’s bench was charged with playing strong defense which they did in limiting opponent benches to 44.2 percent shooting which ranked ninth among bench scoring defenses according to hoopsstats.com.
Boston’s second unit consists of a multitude of players who all have different roles to play. Marcus Smart is the pesky defender who will be in the hunt for a spot on the NBA's All-Defensive Teams. Daniel Theis is the sneaky-good rebounder who had the team's top rebounding percentage (.160) from a year ago. Morris and Rozier are looked upon to score the ball as well as defend at a high level.
MORE FROM A. SHERROD BLAKELY
“We understand that the second unit, is ours,” Morris told NBC Sports Boston. “We all buy into it. We want to have a special year. We’re going out there, playing the best we can. But at the same time, he (Rozier) is a starting point guard in this league. So, I don’t see no backups. I feel like I’m a starting 3 (small forward) or 4 (power forward) in this league; I don’t see no backups. Nobody can do nothing with us. It’s going to be a long, long season for opposing second units.”
Youth Coming of Age
The Eastern Conference finals last spring featured a Celtics squad with a trio of starters – Terry Rozier, Jaylen Brown and Jayson Tatum – that were all 24 years old or younger.
It was the kind of youth movement that you seldom see advance through the postseason and come as close as they did – one win, actually – from getting to the NBA Finals.
That successful run has brought a different kind of confidence and swagger into training camp, the kind that bodes well for a Celtics team that will have to rely heavily on its depth in order to achieve its goal – winning an NBA title.
All three will have prominent roles with the Celtics again this season, with Brown and Tatum remaining in the starting lineup while Rozier becomes a highly valued reserve off the bench.
Finding success in the playoffs was indeed a game-changer for all three players coming into this season.
“I’ve always felt that, if I get an opportunity, I can play with anybody,” Rozier told NBC Sports Boston. “But to go out there and do it … it feels good. I was happy with my play then, but I’m not satisfied. I can play better, I will play better.”
Both Brown and Tatum echoed similar thoughts on their approach to this season based off of what went well last spring.
“It’s definitely a nice confidence-boost to be playing some of your best basketball in the playoffs,” Brown said. “But me, this team … we're still hungry.”
Because in the end, good play is no longer good enough for this team.
Getting to the Conference finals won’t suffice, either.
They have done that each of the last two seasons, well aware that tangible progress at this point means getting to the NBA Finals.
And doing so likely means facing the Golden State Warriors, a team that the Celtics have actually played well against in recent years.
Boston has split the season series in each of the last three seasons, with two of those losses coming down to the wire and in overtime.
It’s one thing to hold their own and win a few times during the regular season.
But can they get it done in a playoff series?
“It’s gonna be tough,” said Jayson Tatum who then added, “but I like our chances.”