CANTON, Mass. — If the Boston Celtics learned anything from last year’s disastrous season, when they bought into their own hype and failed to deliver, it is that sometimes it is better not to say anything at all.
During an understated media day at a production studio in the suburbs, “fresh start” was the theme of the afternoon, so much so that a handful of Celtics used the phrase and Marcus Smart joked, “We’ve all seen Jaylen Brown’s hair, right? I think that kind of lets you know how fresh of a start it really is.”
There was no mention of their departed All-Stars, outside of Enes Kanter referring to Kyrie Irving as “a guy who shall not be named” and Daniel Theis describing how the Celtics plan to run more, leveraging their frontcourt athleticism now that Al Horford’s playmaking as a point center in the half-court is no longer an option.
Unlike last season, there were no declarations that Boston can beat anyone in a seven-game series. Even Jayson Tatum dialed back his prediction earlier this summer of 20 points per game, an All-Star appearance and a spot in the Finals.
“I always have expectations,” he said. “Sometimes they’re different than they were last year, but I think I’m going to keep them to myself this year. I’m going to keep them in my mind, but winning is the most important. That’s always the goal.”
Instead, those in attendance had to read between the lines. Was “fresh start” code for a sigh of relief that Irving was gone? If inclined, you could certainly read it that way when you listen to Smart’s answer to a question about Kemba Walker recognizing that leadership must be earned.
“When you have a competitor and a guy like that who is willing to come in here and know that and not just come in here and think that because he was an All-Star and everything like that,” said Smart, “that just helps these younger guys, myself included, because we see that and it makes us want to go out there and give everything we have for him.”
Semi Ojeleye described the atmosphere around this year’s team as “a lot lighter,” and Celtics staffers at the event acknowledged that there was a cloud around last year’s group that seems to have been lifted by the new personnel, especially the handful of rookies who have practically been inseparable since arriving in June.
Kanter, who lightened the mood by handing out cookies to assembled media prior to his interview, has helped, too.
“Enes is the type of person I always want to be around because he just has such a positive aura around him,” said Tacko Fall, “and he is such a great person with the biggest heart.”
There was no finger-pointing. If anything, staffers who bit their tongues throughout a tumultuous 2018-19 campaign conceded that the handful of returning players took to heart their responsibility for last season’s failures. Gordon Hayward said as much.
“You learn that nothing is going to be given to you in this league,” said Hayward. “A lot of people kind of just handed us the trip to the Finals and thought we were going to walk our way to the Eastern Conference finals. That’s obviously not the case and didn’t happen. There’s a lot more to basketball than just looking at who’s on the team. Some of the intangible things we didn’t do as good of a job last year, but I think individually each one of us had a lot to think about this summer and a lot to learn about what we can all do better. I certainly used that as motivation for myself to be a lot better player during this offseason, making sure I was getting my work in, but I think we’re all looking forward to this season and that fresh-start feel.”
Hayward was among those who stayed in Boston this summer in an attempt to build chemistry with the new group. Outside of the four members of Team USA — Walker, Tatum, Smart and Brown, who had their own offseason of bonding — almost everyone spent considerable time this offseason working at the team’s new practice facility to ensure that those intangibles do not slip through the cracks this year, even on paper if the roster is not as talented as last year’s.
“All the guys are good guys, man,” said second-round pick Carsen Edwards. “Just being here over the summer and just being a new guy in a gym full of new guys, but also having guys who have been in the league here for years as well, I feel like for me it’s really cool to see that they’re here and it’s just as important for them to be here during the [preseason] when they could be working out wherever they wanted to.”
There were many introductions of new faces and a handful of bookkeeping items to cover. Hayward feels better, both mentally and physically. Tatum’s ankle and lottery pick Romeo Langford’s thumb will not restrict them in training camp. Coach Brad Stevens wants to play faster with, as Ojeleye put it, “a bunch of wings and a five man.”
Outside of that and Kanter’s shot at the New York Knicks, the fresh-start Celtics spent their media day doing everything they could to reverse course from last season, setting low expectations in hopes of overachieving.
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