Team USA loss shouldn't define Team Shamrock's FIBA World Cup experience

Team USA loss shouldn't define Team Shamrock's FIBA World Cup experience

The four members of the Celtics who signed up for Team USA duty this summer knew the potential pitfalls and the chief peril came to fruition Wednesday when the Americans got upset by France in the quarterfinals of the FIBA World Cup in China.

For the first time in 13 years, Team USA lost a game during international competition. Kemba Walker, Jayson Tatum, Jaylen Brown, and Marcus Smart will be linked to a team that disappointingly saw a 58-game winning streak snapped — at least for a few summers while Team USA attempts to rebuild its reputation as the dominant force in international hoops.

But to suggest that Team USA’s loss in any way takes away from what these players experienced this summer is shortsighted. Four members of the Celtics got a jump start on chemistry-building, they got a rare chance to learn under the tutelage of championship coaches like Gregg Popovich and Steve Kerr, and they got a hoops experience that's positives will so greatly outweigh the negatives of a non-medal finish.

When Paul Pierce’s name is invoked in these parts, is the first recollection the disastrous 2002 world championships experience in which Team USA finished a head-slapping sixth on home soil? That year, the Americans saw another 58-game winning streak snapped against Argentina.

There was palpable and understandable disappointment among Celtics players after Team USA lost Wednesday. When Jaylen Brown was asked by reporters what the mood in the Americans’ locker room was like, he responded, "I don’t even know how to answer that. Everybody knows what we wanted to do, and we didn’t do it. I guess you can imagine how we feel, right?”

We can. But once the disappointment wears off, and the FIBA championships are sooner forgotten with the start of the NBA season, the experiences that Team Shamrock endured will benefit them far more than any medal might have.

Where else this summer would the 6-foot-7 Brown be tasked with not only playing a good majority of his minutes at the unfamiliar power forward position, but also be tasked, in critical game situations, with helping to defend 7-foot-1 Rudy Gobert? When the Americans desperately needed to slow Gobert, it was Brown and Smart who got the call from Popovich as the best non-big options to joust with the Jazz center.

Brown put together another solid outing Wednesday, maximizing his opportunity ever since Tatum injured his ankle against Turkey. Smart practically willed the USA back from a double-digit deficit early in the second half with his defensive tenacity.

Yes, Walker had his biggest dud of the tournament. He struggled early against France’s ball pressure and his shot defied him throughout the game. It was the worst possible timing for Walker to go cold in a tournament where he had otherwise shined. Team USA will wonder if things might have been a bit different if Tatum had been healthy enough to suit up.

Team USA fell short of impossibly high expectations, particularly considering how much the talent gap has narrowed in international hoops. When American superstars bailed on this year’s FIBA tournament, it put those that elected to suit up in a tough spot, all while tasked with building chemistry on the fly. Credit Popovich and Co. for not using it as the go-to excuse for why Team USA bowed so early.

The experiences of the past two months will soon benefit Team Shamrock. Maybe it happens when Tatum is at the free-throw line in the closing seconds of an opening-night tilt in Philadelphia and he can step up more confidently knowing the clutch freebies he made against Turkey to force overtime. Maybe it happens a week later if Smart is deployed to defend Giannis Antetokounmpo when the Bucks visit TD Garden on Oct. 30, and Smart can reflect back on his efforts in Team USA’s win over Greece.

Maybe it happens when Brad Stevens deploys Brown at the 4 in small-ball lineups, cocksure in the assignment because of what Brown showed in this tournament. Or maybe it happens whenever Walker looks across the court and sees the like of Gobert or Evan Fournier, and the disappointment of his quarterfinal shooting woes inspire him in an NBA rematch.

If nothing else, Boston’s quartet of Team USA participants should be ready to hit the ground running when camp opens on Oct. 1. They sacrificed their summer with hopes of FIBA gold, but there are much bigger goals for all four of those players in a more familiar work environment.

Wednesday’s loss shouldn’t define Team Shamrock. What happens in the next six months will be a much better gauge of their summer adventures.

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Celtics' Kemba Walker 'not thinking about' Kyrie Irving comparisons

Celtics' Kemba Walker 'not thinking about' Kyrie Irving comparisons

The Kemba Walker-Kyrie Irving comparisons are unavoidable, and they're something the new Celtics guard will have to hear about throughout his first season in Boston.

But Walker certainly doesn't seem all that concerned. During the former Charlotte Hornets star's media availability on Thursday, he was asked about replacing Irving while possessing a playing style and skillset eerily similar to the Brooklyn Nets guard's.

“I don’t think about it,” Walker said, as transcribed by WEEI. “That’s not something that I really care about. Kyrie, he’s a hell of a player. He’s one of the best in the world.

“We are pretty similar in playing style and stuff like that. That’s not something I think about. Of course, I see everybody . . . it just is what it is. It’s just obvious. It’s going to come up.”

While Walker and Irving's playing styles share plenty of similarities, their personalities and leadership qualities couldn't be much more different. It's no secret Irving's presence played a role in the Celtics' lack of chemistry during their disappointing 2018-19 campaign. That's exactly why the C's brought in a guy like Walker, whose character is held in high regard by his former coaches as well as both his former and current teammates.

Will that change in leadership make all the difference for the new-look Celtics as they turn the page on the Irving era? We'll find out soon enough. The season tips off Oct. 23 at 7:30 p.m. vs. the 76ers in Philadelphia.

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The key to Jayson Tatum's breakout season that's not being talked about

The key to Jayson Tatum's breakout season that's not being talked about

BOSTON — Practice was over and Boston Celtics forward Jayson Tatum was nowhere in sight. 

The 6-foot-9 forward headed straight to the weight room immediately after the team’s post-practice huddle broke up. 

Trying to bulk up a little bit, huh? 

“Something like that,” Tatum said with a grin. 

It makes sense for Tatum to try and get bigger in what many anticipate will be a really big, breakout-type season for the third-year forward. 

And while much of the attention Tatum has drawn in the past often focused on his scoring, Tatum’s improvement defensively may be what takes his overall game to another level this season. 

While no one expects Tatum’s defensive rating in the preseason (69.1) to hold up once the regular season starts, it is clear that he’s focused on elevating his play at that end of the floor akin to what we saw during his rookie season. 

Acquired via trade with the Sixers on draft night in 2017, Tatum’s penchant for scoring was evident from Day One. 

But with a roster that included Kyrie Irving, Gordon Hayward and Al Horford in addition to Jaylen Brown, Terry Rozier and Marcus Smart, Tatum wisely figured out early that scoring was not going to get him on the floor as a rookie. 

So the only way he would see time, was to prove his worth to head coach Brad Stevens as a defender, which Tatum readily admits was a bit of an adjustment for a variety of reasons. 

“It’s a lot of things you have to learn,” Tatum said in an exclusive interview with NBC Sports Boston. “It’s a whole new system, new terminology, a whole new way to guard …  everybody in the NBA is so much more talented, so you have to pay attention to the scouting report. It’s a different ball game when you come from college. you really have to focus and pay attention to all the details.”

It certainly worked for Tatum during his first year in Boston.

“Jayson Tatum’s defense is beyond his years,” Celtics head coach Brad Stevens said in 2017, Tatum’s rookie season. “He’s very savvy. He’s very long. He uses his length; his arms are out and he gets his hands on balls, deflects passes and discourages drives just because of his length. So, I think he’ll continue to get better and better.”

He was one of just three rookie forwards (Philadelphia’s Ben Simmons and Kyle Kuzma of the Los Angeles Lakers were the others) in 2017 who averaged at least 30 minutes of court time, with Tatum’s defensive rating of 100.8 being the best among the group. 

But last season, one in which Tatum was being looked upon to be significantly more of a scorer, he averaged more points (15.7 compared to 13.9 as a rookie) but saw his defensive rating slip to 105.1.

Part of Tatum’s process now when it comes to improving as a defender, is to improve his strength. 

Since arriving in Boston, Tatum estimates he’s gained about 10 pounds of muscle and now weighs 215 pounds. 

We have seen the added strength at work during his time with Team USA as well as what he has done in the preseason with the Celtics. 

But that added weight will also benefit him as a defender, with Tatum likely to play both forward positions this season and potentially some center depending on the opposing team’s lineup. 

“I’m trying to be the best player I can be,” Tatum said. “Just trying to make a bigger jump from year to year and be a better version of myself.”

Indeed, Tatum’s statistics improved in several categories last season. In fact, most of his numbers were similar to Toronto’s Pascal Siakam who was named the NBA’s Most Improved Player last season. 

But Tatum’s play last season, while better statistically in a number of categories in comparison to his first season, was roundly criticized in many circles and viewed as underachieving in others. 

Tatum has said on more than one occasion that he didn’t play his best basketball a year ago, and is determined to make amends for that with what he and Celtics Nation are hoping will be a breakout system.

And the best way to do that is to make strides towards becoming a more complete, two-way talent for Boston.  

“I want to be one of the best players on both ends of the court,” Tatum said.

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