Five things to watch out for as the Celtics’ new season begins
NEW YORK – The whole question of the Celtics captaincy is complicated.
The last was Rajon Rondo, who was traded in the middle of his reign, and Brad Stevens saw the need for another.
Ime Udoka was on hand for a rock solid leadership structure in San Antonio, and on the eve of Wednesday night’s season opener in New York, is open to the Celtics’ captain nomination.
Jaylen Brown appointed Al Horford. Marcus Smart felt that captains are not necessary, and he may be right, because naming Jayson Tatum, Horford, Brown and Smart would be a bit too democratic.
But when the oldest Celtic – Smart enters his eighth season against the Knicks – says there’s enough of that quality in pretty much everyone in the top-eight of the rotation, it’s worth considering.
The Celtics had returned a season ago with hopes a little too quickly exhausted. The need for a new voice in the hall led Stevens to come upstairs and hire Udoka – a first-time head coach who boasts of Spurs tenacity of Gregg Popovich.
So there wasn’t a lot of leadership on this team to begin with, although the critical overload on the Soft-spoken Tatum was totally unfair. Even now, for all of his talents and upgrades, he’ll need help from all of the aforementioned players, as well as newcomers Dennis Schroder, Josh Richardson and, back for another try, Enes Kanter.
Udoka did not wait long to harden the process. He doesn’t want his players to complain to referees – a pet peeve, he says – and put Grant Williams on the bench last Friday in Miami for doing just that. He set a series of rules on the first day of training camp, and when Smart missed the season opener in Orlando, Udoka suspended the veteran for one game.
He has trained everyone on a relentless regime of defense change and understands that style change takes time. It is already facing the hurdles of the COVID era.
Brown was outclassed in questionable Tuesday, is in “recuperation” from his time in quarantine, and the young star’s return is such a relief, Udoka can actually play him without receiving formal training. Horford, who tested positive four days later, may not be far behind.
But at the start of the Udoka era – he’s the 18th head coach in franchise history – he’ll be looking for a quick maturation, given the veteran nature of his roster.
Here are five things to look for.
Big shoulders, literally
The first thing you notice about the post-Olympic, post-gold medal Tatum is that he added a layer of muscle above his shoulders. He used it in a powerful way during show season, almost always getting a lag thanks to his extra strength. And when teams like Toronto and Orlando tried to collapse on him, he parted them with crisp passes to his shooters.
Either he spun and dunked, or jumped himself for a few deep punches. Its ceiling is still the size of a cathedral, although this may be the season when Tatum makes his biggest leap to date in all areas.
“He’s a threat everywhere on the pitch. He should be able to score and make plays from anywhere on the pitch, ”Udoka said. “The teams can overtake him on the post, we can obviously play him on the perimeter, play him in pick and rolls, play him on the elbows, areas that are difficult for him to pass.
“The other part was the making of the game. He’s happy about it,” said the Celtics coach. “He understands the attention he gets, so he’s been great in training and in games, which really took the gym apart. We want him to be a playmaker but also to be looking to score. I just told him about using his height advantage, his height, he can shoot anyone but not always to settle down. Do you have a smaller guy there? Punish him. You draw a crowd and from there you have a good game. ”
This next step includes a colossal presence on the line, where Tatum has increased his number of attempts every season – last season to 5.3 per game. He will face an even higher level of expectation this season, but Tatum certainly has the shoulders to carry him.
He never got better
No one – we’ll add a “probably” since he’s playing for the same team as Jayson Tatum – has improved more every season since his rookie year than Jaylen Brown. He’s an elite winger, an All-Star for the first time, and there are no more weaknesses in his attack.
Brown now finishes with an efficiency that matches his flair and explosiveness. He hit career highs in 3-point shooting (.397) as well as two (.536) last season, and like Tatum, he could make his biggest jump yet this winter. He also learned to see the game differently after a tear in his left wrist ligament truncated his season and wiped out what would have been his fifth straight playoff appearance.
“So much. So much,” Brown said of what he’s learned. “The game, when you have to watch it, when you have to watch it from different angles, the game just looks different to me now, in a way. I don’t know how to describe it. It doesn’t sound the same. I spent a lot of time watching, watching the playoffs, watching movies during the offseason because I couldn’t. I was sidelined. But now that I’m back, the game is definitely different, but in a good way.
A return to the defensive summit?
Although they were better late, the Celtics finished 18th with a defensive rating of 106.4 last season, after dropping to 28th. No team with Marcus Smart should ever defend so badly, but that’s where the Celtics are until they start stopping people this season. It may not be a coincidence that Smart was not part of an All-Defensive squad a year after earning his first first-team honors.
This, before anything else, must change. This is where Odoka comes in with his switching coverage, this time backed up by truly versatile defenders like Horford, Richardson and Schroder in addition to Smart, Tatum and Brown – all three capable of more.
But if Rob Williams can stay healthy, he makes all the difference, as Udoka has often noted.
“He’s improved overall throughout the preseason,” said Udoka. “The absence of the guys kind of halted some progress so far, but we also implemented other things. In the last few days we have added to the repertoire defensively, we have a few different options, but this is something we really want to get good at. We have seen this progression throughout the preseason. It’s not natural for everyone to reverse engineer the ball to turn the ball on and off – it’s not something they’re all used to, and we want to hammer this house first before we go. go back to more traditional blankets. We have worked a lot, seen improvements, but also seen slippages in some areas and we had to work on those areas in the last few days of training.
The best thing for Dennis Schroder is to forget about last season
There was probably a certain twist when Dennis Schroder said he didn’t feel comfortable in the Lakers environment – turning down that extension offer, or the non-offer, or whatever, was gaining guts – but it was very evident in his game.
He went from 18.9 points and 38.5 on 3-point shots at Oklahoma City in 2019-20 to 15.4 and 33.5 as a Laker, although his number of assists increased (4.0 at 5.8) as a LeBron James winger.
Although it’s now just a memory, Schroder finished second, voting for the 2019-20 NBA’s sixth man of the year in his second and final season with the Thunder. Here is Schroder on the possibility of contributing to this new culture that he is joining.
“It’s great so far. Having Al (Horford) here makes it a little easier, ”he said of his former Hawks teammate. “I help too. Even young people, I try to push them every day. Even Jaylen and JT – I try to push them.
“I mean, they’re great players, but at the end of the day we just have to come together as a unit. And if we do that, we’re gonna be hard to stop. So we try to create the chemistry over the next few days, and even at training camp, we did. We want to create something special in the dressing room and on the pitch as well. ”
Romeo Langford, finally in the midst of the healthiest stretch of his two-season career, has become training camp history with his fluid two-way play. Aaron Nesmith shoots more confidently than ever, and Udoka believes Payton Pritchard could be one of the best shooters on the roster. Grant Williams lost weight and resumed his uninjured approach to defense and rebound.
While the rotation points are cemented relatively quickly, there is room for all of the above to carve out regular rotation roles.
“Mentally, it just makes you horny,” Williams said. “If you’re not excited then you’re not the player who probably should be there. It makes you even more competitive. It makes you want it even more because yes the veterans presence is there, but you still want to make an impact and bring value to the team.
“So that brings out that competitive advantage. ”