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WALTHAM — There are only three Celtics players left who embarked on the 2007 preseason trip to Rome and London, and their recollections of that galvanizing experience for the eventual NBA champions drew smiles.
The 2007-08 Celtics were expected to challenge the Pistons and Cavaliers in the Eastern Conference, and the trip was designed to acclimate newcomers Kevin Garnett and Ray Allen.
Obviously, the trip was effective. The players bonded, toured Rome and London, and spent off-court time together that fostered team chemistry.
The Celtics will make a similar excursion beginning Monday, spending six days in Istanbul and three in Milan, playing an exhibition game in each city and conducting valuable two-a-day practices thousands of miles from home.
There are nine new players on the roster, with two others invited to training camp. The Celtics began to bond during some informal workouts earlier this month in Los Angeles, with every player on the roster showing up at UCLA for intense sessions, followed by a game of flag football to conclude the trip.
Players have said those practices were an effective way to begin to establish unshakable chemistry, which is what the 2007-08 team possessed. After that, the Celtics went to the NBA Finals in 2010 and the Eastern Conference finals last season, but the chemistry showed cracks, especially last season with the dissension between Rajon Rondo and Allen.
Perhaps memories of the 2007 trip to Europe conjured up some positive feelings. It’s apparent the veterans want that cohesion back.
“The Europe trip, socially, just made us interact with each other,” Garnett said. “When you’re around seeing a new city with the new guys, it’s new and you’re hitting restaurants. You’re social, you’re out and doing whatever it is, but you’re doing it as a group.
“A little bit of bonding happens. You find out tendencies. You see what he can’t take versus what he can.
“It’s kind of weird, because as I am sitting up here thinking about [the] question, I’m thinking about Rome, a lot of parallels here to obviously ’07-08 with the depth of the team. So I’m just wondering if we can bond and come together and give each other to each other for the betterment of this whole goal. Obviously it worked then, and we’ll see if it works now.”
The Celtics eagerly accepted the league’s invitation to participate in NBA Europe 2012 and play games against Fenerbahce Ulker on Friday and Milano on Oct. 7, but coach Doc Rivers views the trip logistically.
He desperately wanted the Celtics to bolt overseas immediately after Friday’s media day and begin camp in Europe. Instead, the club is not scheduled to arrive in Istanbul until Monday evening and won’t practice until Wednesday at Ayhan Sahenk Arena.
The team will also participate in NBA Cares events. There will be extensive time for teammates to bond; the lone Celtic to have visited Istanbul is free agent guard Dionte Christmas, who played in Greece.
“I can’t wait to go,” Rivers said. “I’ve not done it this way. The way we did it in London we went right away and we had camp over there. I thought that was terrific. This way, where you kind of cut up your camp, I’m not a big fan of that. But I do think it will have something. It will be good for us. I think when you’re traveling like this overseas, it’s always pretty good.”
Rondo has been anointed the team leader, having organized the Los Angeles workouts. Garnett and Paul Pierce have stated that he’s the Celtics’ best player.
Five years ago, Rondo had just finished an uneven rookie season and was simply instructed not to screw things up as the floor leader of the Big Three.
Now the younger guys consider him a seasoned veteran although he is only 26. Rondo said he is ready to accept the leadership responsibility.
“I think each year my role has expanded as far as being a leader,” he said. “Maturing every year and trying to accept the role. The LA thing was to get guys away from the facility before we start working and focus on winning this championship.
“I just think we were very close [in 2007]. When we came back from Rome, we did a lot of bonding there. Obviously everybody speaks another language, we could only talk to ourselves.
“We’re a close-knit team already, and we do a lot of activities off the court already and we do what we have to do on the court.”
An advantage for the Celtics is that they participated in both NBA summer leagues, in Orlando and Las Vegas, allowing the rookies time to bond. Christmas, Kris Joseph, Jamar Smith, Fab Melo, and Jared Sullinger continued to practice in Waltham and were eventually joined by Rondo.
“It’s going to be fun, because we’re going to have to stick together as a team,” Sullinger said. “We’re probably going to be the only people who know English, and on top of that, we’re probably going to explore together as a team. So everything is going to be fun and it’s going to develop team chemistry.”
Garnett said this year’s team is already closer than last year’s, and he joked that when the players drove to a team dinner Friday night, they allowed each other to merge and directed each other toward their destination.
“We have continuity,” said Garnett. “Obviously you got to keep it continuous, stay consistent with it. For the most part, we’re hanging out. Turkey will probably amplify that because we don’t know anybody over there.
“Right now we’re all trying to get this new system. We’re all trying to figure each other out.”
Rivers is implementing a new offensive system, so the Celtics are going to spend considerable time working on it, but there will be time for team events, and for teammates to share conversations and bond.
“When you go abroad and the place is foreign to you, you have a tendency to come together,” said Pierce. “When you’re practicing here in Waltham, you practice, you talk in the locker room, then you go home to your family.
“When you’re overseas, you go to practice, then the guys go to lunch together, dinner together. So it gives you a better opportunity to know your teammates.
“That sort of bond really helps a team in the long run. That was instrumental in our championship run the first year and I’m excited about the trip.
“This is going to be a long journey, starting in Turkey and hopefully it ends with an NBA championship.”