CANTON — The Celtics hosted media day Monday, ahead of their first preseason practice. Here’s what we learned:
Everybody is healthy.
Every player who was recovering from an injury says they are now playing 5-on-5.
Forward Gordon Hayward (ankle), point guard Kyrie Irving (knee), center Daniel Theis (knee), and rookie center Robert Williams (knee) all told reporters they are good to go for the start of training camp on Tuesday. The group, along with other teammates, have already played several rounds of pickup at the Auerbach Center.
“The pickup games have been great,” Hayward said. “For me, that was the first time I played 5-on-5. There’s nothing like playing basketball. There’s nothing like doing just in-game stuff you can’t get from drills. You’re guarding somebody, you’re reacting, you’re getting a rebound and trying to go straight back up with it, like those things, I can’t really practice. To have the ability to do that was really big for me.”
Hayward is nearing the end of an emotional recovery following a gruesome fracture dislocation ankle of his left ankle in the opening quarter of his Celtics’ debut. Both he and Irving missed the entirety of Boston’s playoff run — one that still ended with a trip to the conference finals — so the organization is eager to see what the team is capable of with a fully healthy squad. The return of the two All-Stars, as forward Al Horford put it, takes the team “to another level.”
“It’s going to be fun to see what Brad can put out there and how he can affect the game with different lineups,” center Aron Baynes said. “That’s the one thing about Brad is he really gets the best of everyone when we’re out there. That was why we were so good last year. We were so versatile no matter who we played. Our lineups changed all the time, and we were able to go out there and do what we wanted.”
The Celtics are saying all the right things.
The re-addition of Hayward and Irving also presents a unique dilemma: How will the Celtics manage their minutes? Given the team’s depleted roster due to injuries last season, several reserves were elevated to starters. While those players certainly capitalized on the opportunity, they likely won’t experience the same type of action this year. The reduced involvement, however, doesn’t seem to be a stressor.
Baynes, who won a title with the 2014 San Antonio Spurs, said that championship team — featuring the likes of Tim Duncan, Manu Ginobili, Kawhi Leonard, and Tony Parker — was able to “set aside their egos” in favor of collective success. If the Celtics can do the same, he believes they’ll likely achieve the same outcome.
Not one player anticipated any conflict in response to decreased playing time, as many weighed the team’s seemingly immeasurable potential to accomplish something special as more important than individual goals. Hayward, Tatum, and point guard Terry Rozier have all previously stated they are comfortable coming off the bench, even though, of that trio, Rozier is likely the only one to be affected. Others echoed that sentiment on Monday, with forward Marcus Morris putting it best: “A blind person can see that we got a lot of talent. Obviously, we all know there’s some type of sacrifice that we have to take for the betterment of the team.”
Rather than viewing the depth as what some have called a “first-world problem,” forward Jaylen Brown pointed out the team can harness it as a positive. The increased competition should inspire the players to dig the best out of each other.
“We don’t look at each other as enemies,” Brown said. “We’re not trying to beat each other up too much. We’re trying to beat up whoever we’re competing against in the next four or five days. I think there’s an understanding of that. But at the same time, we’re going to push each other. We have to push each other like we did last year.”
Jayson Tatum is primed for another stellar year.
To Morris, and likely others, Tatum is an All-Star.
“That kid can play,” Morris said. “He’s gotten better. I’ve said all along he’s special.”
Tatum is coming off an impressive rookie year, in which he played 80 games and averaged 13.9 points and 5.0 rebounds during the regular season. His scoring jumped to a team-high 18.5 points per game during the playoffs, as he continued to garner praise for not only his talent but also his tremendous poise.
According to his teammates, he’s ready to top that performance.
“Last year he got some go, but you can’t really see it all the way because of his nervousness kicking in,” Rozier said. “But he calmed down, and, now, he comes back this summer, he got that ‘I’m the man’ look, and he’s been killing it. He’s been looking real good, real good.”
Tatum said he focused primarily on building strength this offseason.
“I think the biggest area of growth this offseason was trying to get stronger and work on finishing around the basket, playing through contact — one of the areas I struggled in last season,” he said. “I’m not the biggest guy, so I knew that it was going to be an adjustment. It’s still going to take some time.”
Defense can’t fall by the wayside.
With much of the conversation focused on rotations and scoring, coach Brad Stevens isn’t going to let the Celtics forget what was one of the primary drivers of their success last year: They finished the regular season with the league’s top defensive rating (101.5).
“We were a really good defensive team, and so on that end of the ball, on that end of the floor, our major emphasis is we can’t skip steps,” Stevens said. “You’re battling human nature a little bit when you’re a good defensive team and you’re re-starting a new season. We need to make sure we beat that, and that we’re dialed into doing every little thing together to make our defense as good as it can be.”
Boston also limited opponents to the second-worst field-goal percentage (44 percent) and third-fewest point total (100.4) in the league.
“For our group, it always comes back to defense,” Horford said. “We have to make sure we’re great defensively — and that’s our priority. Coach has laid out the blueprint for our group, and he’s made us understand, defensively, we need to be great. We need to buy in that that’s what’s going to put us over the top.”
Kyrie Irving means a lot to this team.
With rumors abuzz about Irving’s future in Boston, it sure doesn’t look like he’s going anywhere any time soon.
“I’m just appreciative of the opportunity to finally be comfortable,” Irving said. “That’s the biggest thing. And I’m happy. So it’s settling, man. It’s peaceful.”
The five-time NBA All-Star said he’s excited for the start of the season and the prospect of playing in the team’s “high-level environment.” He said he’s looking forward to helping build a championship culture.
“Part of leadership is empowerment, really realizing how great some of these guys are, from the potential of them,” Irving said. “It’s really special to have young guys that get it. They work hard, they want it, they have vision, they have drive, they have commitment, they have sacrifice, and they want to learn how to win, and, for the most part, they know how to win.”
Irving’s teammates weren’t shy with doling out praise, either.
“I just love being out there with him,” Tatum said. “He’s a great player and teammate. I still get excited at some of the things he does on the floor. He never ceases to amaze me. Hopefully, he can stay healthy — and everybody can stay healthy — the whole season.”
“With Kyrie, I feel like he did a really good job leading our team last year, even when he wasn’t playing, he was sending me messages, talking to the guys, trying to stay engaged,” Horford added. “He’s going to make the game for me.”
The team isn’t looking too far ahead.
Although their eyes are fixated on a championship, the Celtics are also keeping their sights set on the daily tasks at hand. Asked about his expectations for the coming season, Brown shifted course: “First things first, I’m excited about media day. I try to take what’s in front of me, one step at a time.”
His teammates offered similar responses.
“I just do what Brad says, ‘Take a day at a time. Don’t skip steps,'” Rozier said. “That’s how we all should approach it. We have a great situation. I think we all know that. We don’t want to do something to mess that up. … Starting tomorrow, we got to focus on Day 1 and let everything build up.”
“What I want the guys to see and to understand is for us to focus on each step,” Horford added. “We can’t think ahead. My mindset right now is I just want tomorrow to get here, so we can get to it and practice.”
But, should the Celtics advance the NBA Finals and face the Warriors?
Tatum likes their chances.
“We believe in ourselves and the guys that we have in the locker room,” he said. “It’s a long process, a long season. We got to start practice tomorrow, but we definitely feel like we can compete and beat anybody in a seven-game series. I mean, it’s not going to be easy. It’s going to be tough. But I believe in our team.”
Robert Williams is still learning.
Williams is making strides in the right direction after he overslept his introductory conference call, missed his flight to the team’s first summer league practice, and lost his wallet three times. The 20-year-old said he’s been turning to veterans like Baynes and Horford for guidance ahead of his rookie year.
“Maybe not from the first day, but since that one hiccup, he’s had a lot of dedication,” Baynes said of Williams. “He’s been in there early, and he’s been in there a long time doing the right things. He’s getting his body right, which I think is one of the keys for him. He’s so young and he has so much potential. If he can get his body right, it’s going to allow him to do what he wants to when he is out on the floor. When he does have the opportunity, with a healthy body, the sky’s the limit for him.”
Horford, too, said Williams has exhibited a strong work ethic as well as a willingness to learn and improve. Horford said he’s looking forward to developing their relationship further when the season starts, and he plans to be “in his ear” to try and help him as much as he can. Williams said Horford already gave him a tip about setting screens after a pickup game.
“More than him pulling me to the side and telling me, I feel like I just have to observe him,” Williams said. “Watch everything, soak up everything.”
So, what about Baynes and Horford stands out to him the most so far? Their consistency.