Two ri­vals sit in C’s way

76ers, Rap­tors up for fight

Boston Herald - - CELTICS SEASON PREVIEW - By MARK MUR­PHY Twit­ter: @Murf56

The East­ern Con­fer­ence has been out of na­tional fa­vor since LeBron James left Mi­ami, and maybe since the Celtics last won an NBA ti­tle in 2008.

This sea­son, the com­bi­na­tion of a fully healthy Celtics team and gen­eral de­cline ev­ery­where else east of Chicago has led to an even ear­lier write-off of the con­fer­ence than usual.

And to take those thoughts a step fur­ther, Kyrie Irv­ing can see as far as the Fi­nals, and a matchup with de­fend­ing cham­pion Golden State.

“I think we have the tal­ent to com­pete with them, but ob­vi­ously I said we can beat them in a seven-game se­ries be­cause I do feel like that,” said the Celtics guard. “We won’t know un­til we put in the work, we sac­ri­fice the amount of time and we push our­selves to be­ing a qual­ity team be­fore we can even echo their cham­pi­onship team. We take time and I’m will­ing to be pa­tient. I’m will­ing to put in the work and help all our guys.

“And I know (Brad Stevens is) ex­cited, our coach­ing staff, I know Danny (Ainge) and man­age­ment’s ex­cited. Just think about now and you think about the fu­ture and it’s like, man, this is some­thing spe­cial to be a part of.”

But not so quickly. With Kawhi Leonard’s ar­rival in Toronto, and the lessons a young Philadel­phia team be­lieves it learned at the hands of the Celtics in last sea­son’s East­ern Con­fer­ence semi­fi­nals, there are cities that don’t buy into all of this early Celtics hype.

That said, con­fer­ence op­po­nents do un­der­stand that their own per­for­mances will be mea­sured this sea­son by the team start­ing Irv­ing, Gor­don Hay­ward, Jayson Ta­tum, Jaylen Brown and Al Hor­ford.

“Ul­ti­mately our team will have to fig­ure out what our in­ter­nal ex­pec­ta­tion is and block out all of the noise that comes with the ex­ter­nal ex­pec­ta­tions and re­ally fo­cus on that in­ter­nal goal, what­ever that may be,” said Philadel­phia guard JJ Redick. “I think it will be an NBA cham­pi­onship, but that should be our fo­cus. And we live in a 24/7 news cy­cle where you have two games and you get off to a slow start, you lose to the Celtics twice in a row, peo­ple chat­ter, and we have to be able to block that out and ul­ti­mately fo­cus on what that end goal is, which is

win­ning an NBA cham­pi­onship.”

What fol­lows is a look at the two con­fer­ence op­po­nents — both within the Celtics’ own di­vi­sion — most ca­pa­ble of mak­ing a

move if the C’s stum­ble.

PHILADEL­PHIA

Joel Em­biid cer­tainly put his own ex­pec­ta­tions on dis­play dur­ing the Six­ers’ re­cent ex­hi­bi­tion tour of China.

“An ap­pear­ance in the Fi­nals is go­ing to be sweet,” said the young cen­ter, who also be­lieves, quite rightly, that there is an MVP honor in his fu­ture.

As un­apolo­get­i­cally brash as he tends to get, Em­biid cer­tainly has the power, size, ath­leti­cism and de­vel­op­ing range to hit the Celtics where they are the most vul­ner­a­ble — when their small bal­lo­ri­ented starters are on the floor.

When this re­newed ri­valry tips off on open­ing night Tues­day at the Gar­den, the Six­ers will be smarter. Af­ter all, their last NBA game was their Game 5 elim­i­na­tion loss on the same floor last May. Though play­maker Ben Sim­mons was ex­posed by the Celtics for the non-shooter he is, and the team des­per­ately needs to add a con­sis­tent jumper if it is to ad­vance, Philadel­phia knows what the next step en­tails.

“It helped in every as­pect,” Robert Cov­ing­ton said of the re­sult. “We have a bit­ter taste in our mouths but it’s also a good les­son for us be­cause it was our first time ex­pe­ri­ence and we knew that we didn’t have the prepa­ra­tion we needed. So this year it’s go­ing to be dif­fer­ent. Every­one had a dif­fer­ent prepa­ra­tion as a unit. Last year we didn’t have as big of a set of ex­pec­ta­tions, but now we have seen what we have put in as a team. So this year we know what we are ca­pa­ble of, based off all the work the guys have put in

this sum­mer.”

TORONTO

Lest any­one for­get, this was the best reg­u­lar sea­son team in the East­ern Con­fer­ence last sea­son, be­fore the bot­tom fell through (again) in the play­offs — this time with a fourgame sweep by Cleve­land in the con­fer­ence semi­fi­nals. Dwane Casey, the NBA’s Coach of the Year, was fired be­fore he even had a chance to ac­cept his award.

But when the ta­lented but in­con­sis­tent DeMar DeRozan was traded as the head­liner in a pack­age to San An­to­nio for the dis­grun­tled Leonard, maybe Toronto’s long-stand­ing post­sea­son jinx was erased.

Leonard, noted LeBron stop­per and the best two-way for­ward in the game — maybe the best twoway player, pe­riod — was also the 2014 Fi­nals MVP.

Though Rap­tors point guard Kyle Lowry was as much of a play­off flop as DeRozan against the Cavs, per­haps Leonard’s cham­pi­onship ex­pe­ri­ence is what this un­der­per­form­ing team needs to fight the Celtics for con­fer­ence supremacy.

One good sign? The enig­matic Leonard has taken an early role as a vo­cal leader.

“He’s def­i­nitely more vo­cal than he’s ever been, on and off the court,” said Danny Green, an­other part of the trade pack­age to come north from the Spurs. “Looks like he feels com­fort­able, feels like he feels at home . . . . It’s also a com­fort, maybe. Dif­fer­ent sys­tem, new iden­tity. He’s older here. There’s a lot of young guys who look up to him, re­spect him.”

Not that there was any­thing less than re­spect for Leonard from his Spurs team­mates. But early on, it cer­tainly looks like the op­por­tu­nity to move out from un­der Gregg Popovich’s au­thor­i­tar­ian style has helped Leonard.

For all of the talk this fall about the Celtics’ depth, and the tal­ent on their bench now that Terry Rozier, Aron Baynes and Mar­cus Mor­ris are mov­ing back to re­serve roles, the best bench in the con­fer­ence was in Toronto last sea­son. Fred VanVleet, the point guard who led that unit, un­der­stands that it’s time for his team to prove it­self all over again.

“It’s all good when it’s all good, and then when stuff, you know, hits the fan and things get rough or get rocky — you drop a cou­ple (of games) or things aren’t go­ing your way or guys have slumps, what­ever else the case is — that’s when your chem­istry is tested, your in­tegrity as a player, as a team­mate is tested,” he said. “Those hard times are what makes the bond, right? You can have the most dys­func­tional team in the world, and if you’re win­ning you wouldn’t know.”

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