Two rivals sit in C’s way
76ers, Raptors up for fight
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.
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
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.”