Celtics can't answer the call

Paul Pierce

Celtics can't answer the call

CHICAGO The lights went down for pregame introductions, and a familiar song came across the United Center PA system.

Dun dun dun, dun dunDUN dun dunDUN . . .

Dun dun dun, dun dunDUN, dun dunDUUUUNNN!

Bulls fans rained boos upon the court as the NBAs version of Darth Vader (and not just because theyre old enough to be everyones father) was introduced. With every name, the booing intensified, but this wasnt your typical insincere, jumbotron-generated hostility.

This was real. This was honest-to-goodness hatred.

For the Boston Celtics, this was a dream.

Over the years, especially the last two, the Celtics have become the team that everyone loves to hate, but also and more importantly, the team that loves to be hated.

Theyve learned to thrive in atmospheres like Chicago; often times even requiring the loathing and genuine disrespect of unruly fans (or loose-lipped opposing players) to unlock their full potential.

Any opportunity to make a statement, to prove someone (or everyone) wrong, was seized like Joey Crawford does the spotlight. The Celtics were too proud for anything less.

Of course, it wasnt always smooth sailing.

A random Monday night in New Jersey? The second leg of a back-to-back against Indiana?

Yeah, on nights like that, theres always a chance the Celtics play dead; that age, complacency or just the 82-game grind of the NBA regular season sneaks up and bites them in the ass.

But Thursday night in Chicago? Primetime? TNT?

This was a game the entire NBA world was watching, against the team that had stolen the Celtics' spot atop the Eastern Conference. A team that had essentially stolen their identity, stolen their way of life and who through 77 games was living better, and healthier, with more promise and even greater expectations.

This was a team whose point guard has sky-rocketed passed Bostons insanely competitive counterpart to claim the title of the Eastern Conferences best; a team whose center has publicly, and repeatedly, disrespected Bostons insanely emotional leader; a team that everyone now seemed convinced was just plain and simple better than Boston.

Please.

This was tailor-made. This was what they lived for.

And now, before the game even started, there were 20,000 fans pushing every one of the Celtics motivational buttons. There was that music, the cloak of evil being forced upon them. They were in the role theyve grown to love, with the whole world against them, and all their hard-earned pride on the line.

At that point, you couldnt have guarantee a win, but man, youd have bet your life on a fight.

Instead you got . . .

Umm, so what exactly did you get?

Afterward, the team called it a butt-kicking. Everyone from Doc to KG, right on down the line, admitted their own faults and Chicagos success. They lauded Rose, complimented the Bulls defense and came up with all sorts of different reasons why the game got away.

They didnt find the right pace. They settled for too many jumpers. When they got the ball into the post, they missed too many easy shots. They werent tough enough. They didnt defend well enough. They didnt execute.

In the locker room, the Celtics rattled off a litany of, not excuses, but entirely legitimate explanations for their embarrassing 16-point loss; one that even when it was close, it never really felt that way. They faced the music and took their lumps, and then . . . they walked out and turned the page to Friday night and the Wizards.

They had to. When youre in the NBA you cant dwell on the past, not when the immediate future is so much more important.

But the rest of us will be left to wonder: What will the future bring?

Of course, at the end of the day, this was just one game, and everyones entitled to a bad night. But the truth is that the Celtics have had a lot of bad nights recently. Theyve had plenty of games, like, say, a random Monday in New Jersey or the tail end of a back-to-back in Indiana, when theyve left so much to be desired. But those nights have always been somewhat overlooked thanks to the knowledge, or the belief, that when they have to this team can always step up. Its a dangerous mentality, but time after time the Celtics have proven that they can do it. For most of the past two years theyve proven that the onoff switch does exist.

That doesnt mean theyll always win. But theyll always compete. When, like a sleeping grizzly, theyre drawn out of their cave and forced to fight for whats important, they can always rise above the drama and play Celtics basketball. Thats always been the assumption. Thats what's kept Boston sane.

But theres no denying that Thursday was one of those nights. They were faced with the perfect Celtics situation. They were the bad guys AND the underdogs. They were being disrespected on both ends. They had the spotlight. The stage. And every reason to turn it on.

And they couldnt.

Yeah, it was just one game, but it was also Game No. 78. It was one of their final two real tests before the only test that matters. And this time they reached back to show the world what they had and it wasnt enough.

The question is why, and the answers a double-edged sword.

First, you can ask: Have the Celtics just reached the point where not even pride and an arena full of unabashed hatred can break the mental funk thats haunted them since the deadline? Where not even a matchup with Derrick Rose can motivate Rajon Rondo to attack the hoop? Where nothing can remind them, Hey, you know, that Ray Allen guys pretty good. How about we get him the ball?

Or maybe theyre the same. Maybe they really were up for this one; ready to prove everyone wrong and re-establish their dominance, but was just up against a better team.

A team with Rose, whos on another level from everyone in the world, never mind Rondo. Luol Deng, whos always possessed the combination of size, length and athleticism to give Paul Pierce a headache. Joakim Noah and Carlos Boozer, who are relentless on the boards, and so strong on the block. Obviously, this advantage is slightly negated if Shaq ever gets back or if Sam Presti forgot to say no backsies, but on Thursday the Chicago front line was too physical for Boston. Noah played only 23 minutes and had only two points he's not yet 100 percent but was still beating up KG. Garnett consistently fought for position, worked his ass off for the ball, but Noah hardly budged. He wore KG down, and over a seven-game series the Celtics will feel those effects. And as great as Jermaine ONeal's been since coming back, he cant hang with Boozer or Noah for any extended period of time. Theyre too relentless and hes too fragile. They don't stop and he can barely get it going.

Theres also Keith Bogans, who seems so out of place in that starting lineup but spent 17 minutes getting physical with Allen and disrupting the Celtics rhythm. Theres a bench featuring established pros like Kyle Korver, Ronnie Brewer and Taj Gibson. Kurt Thomas, who gives the Bulls everything P.J. Brown gave the 2008 Celtics and then some. Theres Tom Thibodeau, whos running the same exact system thats brought the Celtics so much success, but is doing it with a younger, quicker and healthier team thats growing more confident by the day. By going to Chicago, hes pretty much just taken the Celtics and turned the clock back. And as a result, especially after last night, it looks like time is finally running out on this Celtics reign atop the East.

Of course, we've been here with this team before. We've written them off and prematurely handed their thrown to the conference's "next" great team. And they've proved us so very wrong.

But at some point, the run will have to end. They always do. Hell, even Darth Vader's run eventually went down in flames.

And while I dont know if Derrick Rose has any Skywalker in him, he certainly can fly.

And he and the Bulls look ready for take off.

Rich Levine's column runs each Monday, Wednesday and Friday on CSNNE.com. Rich can be reached at rlevine@comcastsportsnet.com. Follow Rich on Twitter at http:twitter.comrlevine33

Thomas excited for reunion with Green

celtics-gerald-green.jpg

Thomas excited for reunion with Green

WALTHAM, Mass. -- When the phone rang this summer, Boston Celtics guard Isaiah Thomas had to do a double-take when he saw the name on the caller ID.

It was Gerald Green, his ex-teammate in Phoenix.

Although they only shared a locker room for 45 games in Phoenix, the two became quick friends.

On the court they developed instant chemistry while coming off the Suns bench. And that bond spilled off the court as Green would later spend time with Thomas in the Seattle-Tacoma, Wash. area in the summer months.

They were cool with each other, cool enough to where Thomas knew it wasn’t in Green’s nature to pick up the phone and call just to say hi.

“Gerald doesn’t call anybody,” Thomas said. “When he called I knew something was up.”

Green said Boston, the team that drafted him in 2006 straight out of high school, was interested in bringing him back for a second stint with the club.

“I tried to put my two cents in and he got here,” Thomas said.

There were several factors that led Green back to Boston, with a chance to reunite with Thomas being high on that list.

Green, already in Phoenix at the time the Suns signed Thomas in 2014, was impressed with the way the 5-9 guard carried himself.

“He was a genuine guy, came in really humble,” Green said. “I saw the talent was there. I knew he had the potential to be one of the best point guards in this league.”

Thomas certainly made a case for such lofty praise with how he performed last season, good enough to earn his first all-star selection.

What really stuck out to Green was that Thomas’ mentality and approach to the game was almost a carbon copy of his own.

“When we stepped on the court we had the same mentality,” Green said. “By any means necessary, get a bucket and play harder than the next team; just try and push the first team, make the first team better every day.”

Thomas was coming off the bench, showing lots of potential and promise that he could carry a heavier load if given an opportunity to do so.

He averaged 15.2 points, 3.7 assists and 2.4 rebounds in 25.7 minutes off the Suns bench in 46 games. Even more significant was that when Thomas did play for the Suns, they were 26-20.

In the games without him, they were just 13-23.

Green was admittedly disappointed they traded away Thomas, believing that season would have had a very different outcome had they not sent him to Boston.

And just like Green recognized Thomas’ skills and how much his team could have benefited from keeping him around, Thomas speaks in glowing terms about Green and what his return to Boston means for the team.

“We needed someone like him; a guy that could shoot the ball, a guy that could space the floor; instant scorer whether he starts or comes off the bench,” Thomas said. “Where the he starts or come off the bench. He’s going to really help us.”

Horford, Johnson wasting no time in developing chemistry

Horford, Johnson wasting no time in developing chemistry

WALTHAM, Mass. – When the news came out that Al Horford was going to be a Boston Celtic, Amir Johnson couldn’t wait to meet his new teammate.

He didn’t have to.

Johnson soon found himself on plane headed to Atlanta to not only work out with Horford, but also try and work out some of the kinks that tend to come up among new teammates in those early days of training camp.

“I took it upon myself when I saw Al was part of the team, I automatically wanted to go down to Atlanta and work,” said Johnson who added that he brought his daughter along for the trip and they went to dinner with Horford’s family during the visit. “I thought it was great just to get that chemistry going. I just wanted to get to known him, make him feel comfortable.”

It’s still early in training camp, but Johnson and Horford seem to be meshing quite well on the floor. 

“The chemistry’s definitely coming along,” Johnson said. “I know when Al wants to roll or pop, and just working my way around it. Al’s more of a popper and eventually he’ll roll. It’s up to me to read whether I stay up or work the baseline.”

Johnson has been in the NBA long enough to know that often the keys to success are subtle nuances that may be overlooked by fans and spectators, but players know are essential to them being successful.

Being able to not only understand a player’s game but figure out how to play well with them, are critical to teammates being successful.

Last season, Johnson was Boston’s primary rim-protecting big man which is a role the 29-year-old Johnson has been cast in the last few years he was in Toronto. Horford brings a similar set of defensive skills to the table which gives Boston a true 1-2 defensive punch along the frontline.

“It’s big time,” Johnson said. “We communicate to each other. It’s all about communication out there; just knowing he can hold it down and he trusts me to hold it down. It’s key.”

GREEN INJURY UPDATE

Gerald Green is expected to get a few more days to rest his hip flexor injury which he said on Thursday was feeling better.

The injury should keep the 6-6 wing from participating in the team’s Green-White scrimmage on Friday, but it isn’t considered serious.

Still, Green is eager to get back and return to full contact work which is why he is getting a steady diet of treatments during the day and returning in the evening for more treatments from the Celtics’ medical staff.

“It’s almost like a precautionary thing; make sure it doesn’t get worst,” Green said.

The injury occurred earlier this week but Green could not pinpoint exactly what he did to suffer the injury.

“I don’t think I stretched properly,” Green said. “I’m not 25 no more. Just try to come out there and go at full speed. Those are things I’ve got to learn now I’m in my 30s.”
Indeed, one of the many benefits of being older now is that Green sees the big picture of things better now, which is why he isn’t trying to rush back to the floor too quickly.

As a veteran, it’s a long season,” Green said. “You’re not trying to do too much to make it worst. Training camp is important, but being healthy at the beginning of the season is even more important.”

RUN, YOUNGSTERS, RUN

Near the end of Thursday’s practice, the Celtics had a full court game of 3-on-3 involving some of the team’s rookies and end-of-the-bench training camp invitees like Jalen Jones of Texas A&M. The 6-7 undrafted rookie had a dunk over Jordan Mickey, a 3-pointer and another strong, uncontested flush at the rim in a matter of minutes. He’s likely to wind up with Boston’s Developmental League team, the Maine Red Claws.

With Thursday morning’s session being the team’s fifth practice this season, head coach Brad Stevens thought it was a good idea to get some of the team’s younger players on the court.

“It was good to play some 3-on-3,” said Stevens who added that it was good for their conditioning since a lot of the running at this point involves trying to get the starters and the likely rotation players as acclimated and familiar with one another as possible. “We try to do that occasionally even through the season just to get everybody up and down.”

TURNOVERS? WHAT TURNOVERS?

Five practices in the books and there’s only one thing that really has stood out to the eyes of Isaiah Thomas.

It’s turnovers.

Apparently the Celtics haven’t committed too many thus far.

“We haven’t turned the ball over as much as teams usually do the first couple of days,” Thomas said. “We’re trying to learn the system, trying to get everybody familiar with what we do. But we’ve been playing well together. Guys are playing hard. Guys have gotten better, worked on their game.”

Ball-handling will be one of the areas to watch during the preseason as the Celtics look to find a replacement for Evan Turner (Portland) who has been one of the team’s best ball-handlers the past couple of seasons.

The Celtics were middle-of-the-pack last season with 13.5 turnovers per game which ranked 14th in the NBA.

Low turnovers often serve as a common trait among playoff teams. Just last season, eight of the top-nine teams in fewest turnovers committed, were in the playoffs.