A year ago at this time, as the Celtics prepared for their season opener, they were operating within unknowns. Joe Mazzulla had suddenly been promoted as the head coach. Robert Williams was out until December, which shook up their lineup. Emotionally, they were still trying to get over the suspension of Ime Udoka.
But now, as the C’s get ready for Wednesday’s season opener in New York, there is a sense of calmness and ease. There’s no drama. Everybody is healthy. While they lost key pieces of their team over the offseason, the additions of Kristaps Porzingis and Jrue Holiday have fit in nearly seamlessly. All of that combined has seemed to give these Celtics an extra dose of confidence as they begin their journey.
“Excitement level is high,” Jaylen Brown said. “Probably one of the best preseasons I’ve been a part of, so now it’s time to perform. Now it’s time to take the work to actual real life and I’m excited.”
Why does Brown view this preseason as one of the best? It comes back to the synergy the Celtics have created with their new-look roster in a short amount of time.
“Just clarity,” Brown said. “We’ve been real clear in our roles, we’re clear what we want to get accomplished. We’re clear in what actions we want to get into, late game, 3-for-2 situations, 2-for-1 situations. We’ve been able to really establish exactly what we want to do. It’s been really good coaching this year.”
Sacrifice has been a big storyline entering this season, with the Celtics having a clear top six and roles changing. They know Al Horford will have to come off the bench, and that one of their best players will have to take a seat during big moments. There are four players with All-Star level ability, but only one ball to go around.
But they all understand what the ultimate goal is. Porzingis is in his prime and has embraced a championship mindset. Holiday has been a champion. Horford, at 37 years old, is willing to take a lesser role for the greater good. And Brown and Jayson Tatum, after several knocks at the door, know what it takes now.
“Most important thing is winning,” Brown said. “So I think everybody is at that stage in their career for the most part, so I think that we all understand that. The game will decide. The matchups will decide, we’ll get to see where the game is going to be won at. We have to trust and let that happen. From top to bottom, we just have to trust each other and make the right reads. We have great players and do what we do. The game will tell you who’s going to make the sacrifice and who’s not. It’s going to switch up from time to time. All our guys gotta be willing. The only thing that matters is winning.”
Having that clarity that Brown described only helps, too.
“I think being able to be on the same page is everything in this league, so building that chemistry, having that clarity, having that understanding, knowing where everyone is supposed to be, knowing what we want to get into,” Brown said. “When you get into those moments, late game, fourth quarter, those are the moments you start to see the work and that clarity come to life.”
Rondo influencing C’s
Rajon Rondo was an invited special guest at practice over the weekend, but he wasn’t there just to hang out. The former Celtics guard was involved in practice drills, coaches meetings and film sessions during his trip.
Rondo joined a growing list of former Celtics who have taken up Mazzulla’s invitation to visit. It’s something Brown doesn’t take for granted.
“He’s been showing me little places where I can attack, read the game in certain avenues and stuff that can help me, stuff that he sees,” Brown said. “And so far it’s been great. It’s so cool having these guys come around and be a part of practice, to be a part of the organization. Growing up, watching the Celtics, seeing like KG, Rondo and Pierce and stuff like that. Now being able to have them in our practice in our film room and them telling you like, ‘No, this is how you got to do it.’ This is what they see. I think that’s a tremendous honor. I know those guys should be doing a lot more things or something else. But they choose to be here with this group. And it says a lot about us and it says a lot about them. I’m extremely grateful for that and I think that’s super cool.”
Tough first matchup
The Celtics begin the season against a familiar opponent in the Knicks, who gave them some trouble last season by winning three out of four regular season matchups. Mazzulla knows the challenge that awaits against a Tom Thibodeau-coached squad.
“Physical, toughness, they show a little bit more double big in their second unit,” Mazzulla said. “But we know how they play. They take on the identity of their coach. It’s gonna be a tough matchup.”
The Celtics played the Knicks twice in the preseason, though New York’s regulars – including Jalen Brunson, Julius Randle and R.J. Barrett – didn’t play in the second meeting when the Celtics regulars played. Still, Mazzulla said there are things to take away from those games.
“You can take a little bit,” Mazzulla said. “You don’t want to invent stuff to take, like, ‘Oh, they’re gonna do this,’ but I think there’s stuff that you just know a Thibs team is going to do. They’re gonna bring it on defense and you know they’re gonna execute well offensively. And those guys that they have do a great job of getting their spots, do a great job of creating contact, and we got to be disciplined in our defense, we got to defend, and we got to be able to execute at the other end.”