Celtics em­brace role as fa­vorites in the East

The Register Citizen (Torrington, CT) - - SPORTS -

BOS­TON — The band is back to­gether in Bos­ton.

Or, at least, it’s healthy again.

Hopes were high for the Celtics go­ing into last sea­son thanks to a re­vamped ros­ter that in­cluded Al­lS­tar additions Kyrie Irv­ing and Gor­don Hay­ward.

Ev­ery­thing changed five min­utes into the sea­son with Hay­ward’s grue­some leg in­jury. Ex­pec­ta­tions changed again late in the sea­son when Irv­ing was also lost for the year fol­low­ing a pair of knee surg­eries.

With­out them, Bos­ton fin­ished the reg­u­lar sea­son with 55 wins and made the East­ern Con­fer­ence fi­nals. A Game 7 loss to the Cleve­land Cava­liers ended a play­off run that saw vet­eran lead­er­ship from Al Hor­ford, the emer­gence of Jayson Ta­tum and Jaylen Brown as bud­ding stars and growth from Terry Rozier and Mar­cus Smart.

Celtics pres­i­dent of bas­ket­ball op­er­a­tions Danny Ainge was able to keep the group in­tact dur­ing the off­sea­son, re-sign­ing the most vul­ner­a­ble as­set in Smart.

This preseason brought more wel­come news when Irv­ing pub­licly pro­claimed his de­sire to stay in Bos­ton. He stood at mid­court at the TD Gar­den and told a group of sea­son ticket hold­ers: “If you guys will have me back, I plan on re-sign­ing here.”

The col­lec­tion of tal­ent makes the Celtics pre­sump­tive fa­vorites in the East with LeBron James no longer lurk­ing in Cleve­land.

Coach Brad Stevens said his job will be to har­ness the en­ergy on this ros­ter, not re­strict what guys do.

“We don’t want to set lim­its or ceil­ings on peo­ple,” he said.

It was made “very clear,” Irv­ing said, dur­ing his time in Cleve­land that he wasn’t the face of the fran­chise. En­ter­ing his eighth NBA sea­son, he has openly re­ferred to him­self as the leader of this young Celtics team.

His team­mates, in­clud­ing Hor­ford, are happy to grant that stature to the five-time All-Star who won a ti­tle with Cleve­land. Irv­ing said be­ing around so a hun­gry group drives him.

“It gives me a lot of con­fi­dence as the quar­ter­back of the team,” Irv­ing said. “This is a lot of tal­ent that I’m be­ing thrown out there with. A lot of re­spon­si­bil­ity that’s be­ing put on my shoul­ders to lead this group, which I will­fully ac­cept.”

Here are some things to watch for this sea­son:

COME­BACK KID: Whether this team ul­ti­mately can show enough moxie to make Bos­ton’s first NBA fi­nals since 2010 may hinge on how well Hay­ward plays dur­ing his come­back sea­son.

He’s ac­knowl­edged hav­ing to men­tally shake off rust and re­dis­cover his tim­ing. He also must find his place on a team that had to find a way to play with­out him last sea­son.

He and Irv­ing were pre­sented as a dy­namic duo of sorts prior to last sea­son. Now both will get their chance to see how all the pieces fit to­gether.

Hay­ward said he’s waited all sum­mer to take on the chal­lenge.

“There’s gonna be hic­cups along the way… When you don’t play bas­ket­ball for a year those things hap­pen,” he said. “I’m gonna have to go at it and at­tack it.”

POSTIONLESS LINEUP: The gift and the curse of this group is that it is loaded with so much ath­leti­cism that sev­eral play­ers can play more than one po­si­tion on the floor.

It makes for a some­what po­si­tion-less lineup in which guys can fill many roles at dif­fer­ent times. That takes ev­ery­one on the court be­ing on the same page.

“We’re ask­ing a lot of our play­ers to be bas­ket­ball sa­vants now, rather than just bas­ket­ball play­ers,” Irv­ing said, adding that the Celtics are no longer a team that can sim­ply go out and play with noth­ing to lose. “It’s gonna take some time for us to fig­ure that out.”

SCARY TERRY: Rozier per­formed well af­ter be­ing thrust into a start­ing role dur­ing the fi­nal stretch of the reg­u­lar sea­son and play­offs with Irv­ing in­jured.

Rozier goes back to the bench now as he en­ters a piv­otal fourth sea­son. He will be re­stricted free agent this sum­mer and will likely com­mand at­ten­tion from other teams.

He said this group’s men­tal­ity is NBA fi­nals or bust.

“Any­thing we did less than last year is a fail­ure,” he said.

Charles Krupa / As­so­ci­ated Press

Bos­ton Celtics guard Kyrie Irv­ing drives to the bas­ket dur­ing a preseason game against the Char­lotte Hor­nets on Sept. 30 in Bos­ton.

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