Celtics

Kemba Walker brushes off Serbian coach's bold challenge to Team USA

Kemba Walker brushes off Serbian coach's bold challenge to Team USA

"If we meet, may God help them."

That was Serbian national team coach Aleksandar “Sasha” Djordjevic throwing down the gauntlet when asked about the possibility of facing Team USA at the 2019 FIBA World Cup.

That's also pretty good bulletin board material should the Americans and Serbians meet. But Kemba Walker -- one of four Boston Celtics players on Team USA's current roster -- isn't counting his chickens before they hatch.

"Honestly, we're going to take it one game at a time," Walker recently told ESPN's Dave McMenamin. "At the end of the day, we both have to make it to a certain place for us to even play each other."

That's certainly plausible: Team USA is the heavy favorite (despite several All-Stars dropping out), but Team Serbia, led by NBA stars like Bogdan Bogdanovic, Nikola Jokić and Boban Marjanović, has the second-best odds to win the tournament.

And in Walker's mind, there's nothing wrong with a little healthy competition.

"I guess when we get there, if we match up, then we'll see what's up," Walker said. "But it's fine. I'm fine with a little bit of trash talking. I don't mind it at all."

The 29-year-old point guard is in a leadership role on a young Team USA squad that includes Jayson Tatum (21 years old), Jaylen Brown (22) and Marcus Smart (25). And it sounds like he's saying the right things.

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Danny Ainge reveals why he initially rejected Celtics GM job offer

Danny Ainge reveals why he initially rejected Celtics GM job offer

Seventeen years ago, the Boston Celtics hired Danny Ainge to be their executive director of basketball operations and general manager.

Getting Ainge on board wasn't an easy task, though.

After spending seven-and-a-half seasons as a player on the C's in the 1980s, one would think Ainge would pounce on the opportunity to run one of the NBA's most iconic franchises. However, that was not the case as he was comfortable with his role as an analyst on TNT's NBA broadcast.

Celtics owners Wyc Grousbeck and Steve Pagliuca extended the job offer to Ainge twice, but he rejected it both times before finally accepting it in May of 2003. Ainge explained in more detail why he was hesitant to take the job in a recent conversation with Gary Washburn of The Boston Globe.

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“They (Grousbeck and Pagliuca) told me that (former Celtics president) Red (Auerbach) had recommended that they hire me,” Ainge told Washburn. “I was flattered and I told them thank you. My three older kids had graduated from high school. I have my three youngest at home, so life is a little bit different. I told them I was not interested in the job and I gave them names of people in the league and some former Celtic players they should interview.

“I didn’t jump at it. It wasn’t anything I was looking to really do. As time went on, they had come a second time and a third time while I was broadcasting. I sensed my wife was warming up to the idea. Eventually, I said yes.”

With Ainge at the helm, the Celtics later won their 17th NBA title in 2008. After the championship season, Ainge was promoted to president of basketball operations.

Seems like taking the job turned out to be the right choice.

For Celtics, restart would quench long desire to see how good they can be

For Celtics, restart would quench long desire to see how good they can be

Before the Boston Celtics played their final game on March 10, Brad Stevens lamented how, "We haven’t been fully healthy very often. It almost always feels like we’ve had one of Kemba [Walker], Jayson [Tatum], Jaylen [Brown] or Gordon [Hayward] out.”

In fact, you would have had to rewind another month before that to find the last time the Celtics played with their top 7 players healthy.

What’s more, Boston had that top core rotation intact only eight times in the 64 games the team played before the coronavirus pandemic forced pro sports to shut down. One of the common refrains from the Celtics — both before the season paused, and in this awkward period since -- was a desire to find out how just good they could be when their top players are fully healthy.

Maybe they’ll actually get a chance to find out.

The NBA announced Saturday that it is in “exploratory conversations” with Disney about restarting the season in Orlando in late July. Even as momentum seemed to be growing about a potential resumption, the league’s acknowledgment made it seem just a bit more real.

There are undoubtedly plenty of hurdles to navigate — coronavirus testing, chief among them — before the NBA can truly position itself to resume games but it feels even safer to start thinking about that day now.

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The news definitely will energize Celtics players. Even with mix-and-match personnel due to injuries and illness, the Celtics still owned the fifth-best record in basketball before play paused. They had the fifth-best offensive rating, the fourth-best defensive rating, and fifth-best net rating. Boston had positioned itself for a top 3 spot in the Eastern Conference and showed that, when healthy, it could compete with any of the league’s elite.

After Enes Kanter hurt his leg on opening night, the Celtics didn’t have their top 7 healthy again until after Christmas (Dec. 28 vs. Raptors). A three-game stretch from Jan. 8-11 was the longest clip with its core healthy and Boston went just 1-2 in those games. Still, when Boston had its top 7 intact on Jan. 20 against the Lakers, it produced one of the team’s signature wins of the season.

We already ran down some of the biggest questions the Celtics will face if the season resumes. Sustained health is no guarantee, even if players will have had roughly three months to heal up before teams start to reconvene.

But the big fear the past two months is that these Celtics wouldn’t even get a chance to see how good they can be. That all the positive vibes and all the potential of the 2019-20 squad would be lost if the season was unable to resume.

It goes beyond the mere potential of the team. During a Zoom conference with Celtics reporters on Thursday, rookie Grant Williams noted the initial suspension of play stung Celtics players because, “especially with this group that we have, who enjoy each other, we enjoy being around each other, we were having so much fun during the year.” Players have openly craved simply getting back in the gym together because of how much they enjoyed each other’s company.

Players have made it clear that safety must be the first priority. If the league can ensure that and the season can resume, we can all embrace getting to see this team again. Before the season paused, the big question was whether the team had enough talent to truly make a push (with some lamenting the team’s lack of deadline and buyout activity).

All Celtics players ever wanted was a chance to answer that question, to see how good this roster could be at full strength. There will be some new variables in the equation given the unique circumstances of a restart but, as optimism about a restart grows, these 2019-20 Celtics might finally get their chance to determine their potential.