Celtics

New-look Celtics know they have still have to 'bring their game'

New-look Celtics know they have still have to 'bring their game'

WALTHAM, Mass. – After being acquired via trade from Detroit this summer, Boston Celtics forward Marcus Morris will be suiting up for his fourth team in seven seasons.

But this season will be unlike any other for Morris as he joins a Celtics’ roster that was significantly strengthened in the offseason with a roster overhaul that, now that the dust has settled, leaves them with a lineup that includes three All-Stars – Kyrie Irving, Gordon Hayward and Al Horford.

“That’s a big change for me,” Morris, who will miss the first week of the season due to right knee soreness, told NBC Sports Boston.

The same is true for the rest of his teammates as they gear up for the season opener at Cleveland on Tuesday.

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Boston has not gone into a season with this level of excitement and heightened expectations since Kevin Garnett, Paul Pierce and Ray Allen were donning the green and white.

While Cleveland remains the team to beat in the East, the Celtics aren’t that far behind.  

And while the KG-Pierce-Allen triumvirate was credited with much of the success Boston enjoyed during their time, their success was a collective effort because of the contributions of many who understood and embraced their roles.

For the most part, the current group of Celtics have done just that.

But the true test of their selflessness, of their willingness to put the team first and foremost, won’t have a chance to materialize until Tuesday’s season opener against the Cavs.

Marcus Smart, the longest-tenured Celtic on the roster, has played starter-like minutes his entire career in Boston and was under strong consideration to be in the starting lineup.

After going back and forth with the idea prior to preseason games, coach Brad Stevens ultimately decided to keep Smart coming off the bench to help lead what’s shaping up to be an extremely young second unit.

While Smart would love to start, more important to him is being a player that’s significantly contributing to the team’s success which often means being on the floor in the decisive fourth quarter of games.

“I’ve been a starter my whole life,” Smart told NBC Sports Boston. “I’ve also come off the bench as well. We have a lot of great players. It doesn’t really matter. It’s easy to be in the game and play when things are going well. The buzzer just goes off, it’s tip ball. Everybody just getting warmed up. It’s hard to play at the end of the game, Eastern Conference finals and the game is on the line. Your nerves are going crazy and it’s your first time there. Those are the moments you want to be in. So, it doesn’t matter if you start or not. You want to be in at the end of the game. That’s when it really counts.”

And there’s a very good chance that he’ll be on the floor with Boston’s new Big Three who each bring a different set of skills to the floor that collectively give the Celtics hope that they can take one more step forward after advancing to the Eastern Conference finals last season.

As important as it is to figure out the best way to mesh their skills with the Big Three, it’s also vital that they remain true to who they are as players and not get into defer-mode which would do more harm than prove helpful to the Celtics’ chances at success.

Everyone has a role on this team.

It’s that simple.

“If I don’t come to play and I don’t bring my grittiness and my game and my scoring, I would be letting the team down,” Morris said. “Even though we have three All-Stars, we need everybody to bring their game every night and play. I’m still gonna step up and do what I gotta do.”

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Blakely: Even with Kawhi in Toronto, Celtics still the team to beat in East

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Blakely: Even with Kawhi in Toronto, Celtics still the team to beat in East

BOSTON -- The Kawhi Leonard saga in San Antonio is nearing an end with reports that the estranged San Antonio star will be traded to the Toronto Raptors for a package centered around the Raptors’ all-time leading scorer, DeMar DeRozan
 
As good as DeRozan has been for the Raptors, acquiring a healthy Kawhi Leonard makes them a better team on several levels. 
 
But that improvement isn’t enough of a power shift to move Boston off the top of the Eastern Conference food chain. 

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Leonard is the best two-way player in the NBA right now, a perennial All-Star when healthy. But his health is one of the many questions out there. He missed all but nine games last season, primarily because of a quad injury. 
 
He's a significant upgrade defensively for the Raptors, which would more than compensate for whatever they lose in terms of offensive punch with DeRozan’s departure. 
 
Toronto's addition of Leonard still doesn’t change the fact that Boston has the deepest roster in the East, headlined by a triumvirate of All-Stars (Kyrie Irving, Gordon Hayward, Al Horford) with an emerging cast of superstars led by Jaylen Brown, Terry Rozier and Jayson Tatum, who finished third in last season’s Rookie of the Year voting. 
 
Throw in a solid bench with strong coaching and a connected front office, and it adds up to a team that has every reason in the world to believe it’ll be the last one standing in the East, regardless of what moves are made by others. 
 
More than anything, Toronto getting Leonard makes the East far more interesting in addition to providing the Celtics with yet another legitimate challenger in the conference. 
 
Philadelphia, by all accounts, looks to be the next best team in the East this season, with Indiana, Milwaukee and the Raptors not too far behind. 
 
Adding Leonard to the mix gives Toronto hope of separating itself from that crowded middle class. But it still leaves the Raptors short of being on the same level as Boston. 

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 For starters, Toronto is adding a player who -- for now, at least -- doesn’t want to be there. 
 
The only assurance they will have is that he’ll be on the roster for this upcoming season. He hits free agency in the summer of 2019 and has reportedly been leaning heavily towards returning to his California roots and playing for the Los Angeles Lakers, who signed LeBron James earlier this month.
 
One of Toronto’s strengths has been the chemistry between DeRozan and Kyle Lowry. There's no guarantee that can replicated by swapping out DeRozan for Leonard. 
 
Also, Toronto has a new coach in longtime assistant Nick Nurse. His strength in the league has been that of a good development coach, which is more in line with a team that's rebuilding rather than one trying to re-tool for another run towards Eastern Conference supremacy. 
 
Regardless of this trade, the Raptors were going to head into this season with lots of questions after getting swept by Cleveland in the second round of the playoffs and then firing Dwayne Casey (who was named the NBA’s Coach of the Year shortly after his dismissal).
 
There’s no denying Leonard’s talent makes a deal like this palatable to many, but the Raptors did more than just trade away a talented player. 

DeRozan was arguably their first star, and at no point in his career did he even hint that he wanted out of Toronto. It was, in fact, just the opposite: DeRozan made it clear, both publicly and privately, that he wanted to spend his entire career with the Raptors. 
 
But that’s not going to happen now. 
 
If Leonard stays healthy and plays at the level we've grown accustomed to seeing him at in the past, the trade makes Toronto a better team on many levels. It certainly closes the gap some between the Raptors and the Celtics.
 
But Boston is still the team to beat in the East, a position that no one trade -- not even one that lands Kawhi Leonard -- is going to change. 

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Report: Spurs poised to trade Kawhi Leonard to Raptors

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Report: Spurs poised to trade Kawhi Leonard to Raptors

Kawhi Leonard wants out of San Antonio and apparently he's getting his wish.

However, he's not too excited about where he's going.

ESPN's Adrian Wojnarowski and Chris Haynes reported early Wednesday morning that the Spurs "are finalizing a deal [to send Leonard to the Toronto Raptors] in a trade package that includes All-Star DeMar DeRozan." And, according to the report: "Leonard and DeRozan are both aware that an agreement could be imminent, and neither is expressing enthusiasm for the deal, league sources said."

Leonard's well-documented frayed relations with the Spurs led to San Antonio pursuing potential deals for the perennial All-Star, but his desire to sign with the Lakers (or, failing that, the Clippers) as a free agent next offseason depressed the trade market. The Celtics were interested in Leonard -- and, in fact, made an offer to San Antonio at last year's trade deadline -- but, knowing there was more than a good chance he'd be a one-year rental, were reportedly unwilling to part with with any of their key players. Nor were the Sixers, another rumored landing spot for Leonard. According to sources, both Boston and Philly made offers that were built around draft picks and not current talent, which didn't interest the Spurs.

With this rumored deal, San Antonio gets an All-Star who'd be under team control for a while: He has three years and $83 million left on his contract, including an Early Termination Option for the 2020-21 season. And Toronto, which finished with the best record in the East last year but was eliminated in the second round of the playoffs, now muscles its way back into contention for the Eastern Conference title, which was assumed to have become a two-team battle between the Celtics and 76ers.

At least for a year, anyway.

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