OFFSEASON

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

OFFSEASON

A closer look at the five signings by the Boston Celtics

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A closer look at the five signings by the Boston Celtics

BOSTON – It’s official.

The Boston Celtics announced the signings of what should be the last moves made of significance between now and training camp.

All five players bring different strengths to the table, as well as areas of concern.

But more than anything else, they provide depth for a team that has made depth a calling card of sorts.

Here we’ll break down each of the newest Celtics, what they bring to the table this season, as well as do a little crystal-ball watching as to what their role should be for this upcoming season.

Gerald Green

Career stats: A nine-year veteran, Green has appeared in 497 games while averaging 10.0 points, 2.5 rebounds and 1.0 assists while shooting 36.1 percent on 3s.

Last season (in Miami): Green averaged 8.9 points in 22.4 minutes per game while shooting 39.2 percent from the field and 32.3 percent on 3s.

The former Celtics draft pick returns to where his NBA dream began, albeit in a much different role. When he arrived as the 18th pick in the 2005 draft, Green was an athletic, above-the-rim freak of nature. Not too soon after that, he won the league’s Slam Dunk competition. From there, Green’s game showed little growth, which led to a two-plus seasons (2009-2012) in which he played overseas and in the D-League. The time away didn’t do much for him financially, but it did result in his game becoming more complete. His time in the NBA over the past five seasons has shown him to be more than just a human highlight waiting to happen. The 6-7 forward has become a more consistent 3-point shooter as he now boosts a career average of 36.1 percent. And he returns in a more humble state than when he arrived. His role is yet to be defined, but the need to add him became a necessity with James Young still not displaying the kind of growth that makes Boston feel comfortable with putting him on the floor to play meaningful minutes. Green won’t play huge minutes, but he’s the kind of X-factor that could help Boston win four or five games this season. And that could be the difference between a tough first-round playoff matchup that begins on the road, or a postseason that starts off at the TD Garden.

TYLER ZELLER

Career stats: Zeller has appeared in 289 games, averaging 7.6 points, 4.7 rebounds while shooting 50.1 percent from the field.

Last season (in Boston): Saw his role diminish significantly from the previous season, averaging 6.1 points and a career-low 3.0 rebounds per game in 11.8 minutes – also a career-low mark.

Throughout the year, Zeller’s patience was rewarded with an unexpected rush of minutes and more often than not, he came through. Having a player who does more than just buy into the concept of always staying ready but proves it time and time again, has tremendous value on this team. The 26-year-old center has shown flashes of being a reliable rotation player for Boston. Even with the changes, Zeller remains arguably their best finisher at the basket among the team’s centers. He will come into camp and just as it has been in the past, will compete for playing time. But most likely he’ll find himself in a similar situation where his minutes will be infrequent. But having said that, Zeller knows his chance to play will come and the Celtics know there will be games where Zeller’s activity, rebounding and scoring at the basket will be needed. And when that time comes, they know he’ll be ready.

Jaylen Brown

Career stats (at Cal): In his lone season at Cal, Brown averaged 14.6 points, 5.4 rebounds and 2.0 assists while shooting 43.1 percent from the field and 27.4 percent on 3s.

Taken by Boston with the third overall pick in last month’s NBA draft, expectations for a player selected so high are usually well, really high. Brown won’t have the pressure that most high lottery (top-14) picks have when they come into the NBA. As it was laid out to CSNNE.com by Brown’s mental skills coach Graham Betchart, Brown’s focus is on controlling what he can control and not getting overly caught up in results. You never want to put too much stock in what happens during summer league, but Brown showed certain strengths during summer league that typically translate well against better competition which he will face during the regular season. He averaged 10.2 free throw attempts per game, which is impressive, summer league or no summer league. He won’t live at the line nearly as much this season, but the aggressive nature of his play was a positive. And like signing Green, Brown also provides a high level of athleticism that has been in short supply on this team in recent years. As for his role this season, look for Brown to be used at both small forward and power forward for Boston as Jae Crowder’s backup.

Demetrius Jackson

Career stats (at Notre Dame): 11.7 points, 3.1 rebounds and 3.3 assists while shooting 46.1 percent from the field and 38.1 percent on 3s.

Last season (at Notre Dame): 15.8 points, 3.5 rebounds and 4.7 assists while shooting 45.1 percent from the field and 33.1 percent on 3s.

After talking with scouts shortly after last month’s draft, many were stunned that Jackson fell as far as he did (No. 45 overall, 15th pick in second round) on draft night. There’s no consensus as to why that happened, either. Winding up in Boston while may not necessarily be the best fit for Jackson in terms of getting on the court immediately, but it should do wonders for his growth and longevity in the NBA. He will see first-hand the work ethic of Avery Bradley, a first-team all-NBA defender as well as Bradley’s backcourt mate, All-Star Isaiah Thomas. The growth in Terry Rozier’s game provides Jackson with tangible proof of what can happen by watching and absorbing the teachings of more seasoned players at your position. But don’t think for a minute that he’s just going to stand idly by, folks. Jackson is a good player who will not back down from any of his more accomplished backcourt mates. He will eventually develop into a decent scorer in this league who has the kind of lateral quickness and instincts (he averaged better than one steal per game in three seasons at Notre Dame) that should serve him well in the NBA. But barring a Celtics trade, Boston’s backcourt depth will likely result in him spending most of his rookie season with the team’s Development league affiliate, the Maine Red Claws.

Ben Bentil

Career stats (at Providence College): 13.8 points, 6.3 rebounds and 0.9 assists per game.

Last season (at Providence College): 21.1 points, 7.7 rebounds and 1.1 assists per game.

Another player who was projected to go higher than he did (51st overall, No. 21 pick in the second round) on draft night, Bentil is an intriguing prospect. The 6-foot-8 forward led the Big East in scoring last season, doing so with Kris Dunn – arguably the nation’s top point guard and the fifth overall pick in this year’s draft – getting him the ball a lot. Bentil has the kind of build and inside-outside game that more and more teams are looking to add to their roster. He showed flashes of that during summer league, but not enough to where you feel he can come in and contribute immediately. Barring trades or injuries to the frontcourt, Bentil will spend a large chunk of this season with the Red Claws.

A. Sherrod Blakely can be followed on Twitter: @SherrodbCSN

OFFSEASON

Mental training is the secret to Jaylen Brown's development

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Mental training is the secret to Jaylen Brown's development

BOSTON – Jaylen Brown’s athleticism was among the many reasons the Boston Celtics selected him with the No. 3 overall pick in last month’s NBA draft. But even before he became a Green Teamer, Brown’s aspirations were much greater than being a high draft pick.

“I want to be a top five player in the league,” Brown said at his introductory press conference last month. It’s a lofty goal for sure; the kind that requires more than just talent. And that’s where Graham Betchart – Brown’s mental skills coach - comes in.

Betchart’s work as a mental skills coach has been on full display as one of the keys to Brown being among the standout performers during summer leagues in both Salt Lake City and Las Vegas, respectively. 

The 6-foot-7 rookie was named to the Las Vegas Summer League’s second team, one of just three lottery picks (top-14) in last month’s NBA draft (Ben Simmons of LSU and Thon Maker of Milwaukee) named to the first (Simmons) or second (Maker) team along with Brown.

In addition to Brown, Betchart has worked with each of the last three first overall picks – Andrew Wiggins, Karl Anthony-Towns and most recently, Simmons. Betchart said he also worked with current Celtic guard Marcus Smart when he was at Oklahoma State.

While each player has their own specific program, there are some common threads that bind all of his clients.

“The big thing I want them to focus on is what in their control,” Betchart told CSNNE.com from New York City where he was meeting with the New York Jets wide receiver Brandon Marshall, who has been one of the more outspoken athletes when it comes to mental health-related issues. “And so for a lot of these guys, they’re so good in high school and even college, they can focus on results and still produce results. As you get older, you realize that results are totally out of your control. And so my focus is getting them to focus on what’s in their control, and learning how to do it consistently; how to create a pattern, a consistent mindset.”

We saw that from Brown this summer with the Celtics’ summer league teams. He averaged 16.0 points and 6.2 rebounds but did so shooting a not-so-great 30.7 percent from the field and was even worst (27.2 percent) on 3s.

However, he did manage to get to the free throw line 10.2 times per game, which is surprising when you consider whistles typically aren’t blown as often in the summer than they are in a regular season game. And just to put his free throw average in perspective, only two players – Houston’s James Harden and Sacramento’s DeMarcus Cousins – averaged more than 10 free throw attempts per game last season.

Brown has said on more than one occasion that getting to the free throw line often has to be one of his strengths in the NBA. Based on what he did this past summer, there’s no question it’s something he has indeed made a priority.

And the fact that Brown was able to do it consistently this summer falls in line with one of the core concepts that Betchart preaches to his clients.

“To me the hardest thing in sports is to be consistent,” said Betchart, who is now the director of mental training for San Francisco-based Lucid, a mental training app for athletes. “Anyone can just once in a while show up and have a great game. It really starts with having a consistent mindset based on what you can control. They have to be in the moment no matter what’s going on. It could be really bad, it could be really good.”

And when it’s over, players can’t dwell in the mistakes of the past.

“We make a mistake and get hung up sometimes,” Betchart said. “But if you can move on to that next play and train your focus to do that, it’s really hard to stop you if you don’t stop yourself.”

Instead, those mistakes actually form the foundation for future success.

In the case of Brown, one of the biggest knocks on him coming into the NBA was his shooting touch being anything but consistent.

“It’s the growth mindset,” Betchart said. “If you are going to master shooting, you’re gonna have to miss a lot of shots. It’s kind of like learning to walk. When you were learning to walk, you don’t remember but you fell down all the time. You didn’t say, ‘Oh I’m not going to walk. I’m just going to stay on the ground.’ You just picked yourself up and eventually you learned. When you get to the professional level, your game is analyzed on where it is right now. And right now, he’s 19 years old. There’s no way he’s going to be as good a shooter now as he’ll be at 23 and 25. And so if he embraces the growth mindset and just continues to focus on his process, which is taking the shot, being assertive, taking your shot, it’s all going to work out. I know this to be factually true.”

Another one of Betchart’s clients is Orlando forward Aaron Gordon, who came into the NBA as one of the worst free throw shooters in college basketball. In his lone season at Arizona, Gordon shot just 42.2 percent from the free throw line.

In his two NBA seasons, the 6-foot-9 forward has shot 68.1 percent.

“People were laughing at (Gordon’s free throw shooting) sarcastically and now as a pro he’s shooting (almost) 70 percent,” Betchart said. “It was all based on a growth mindset; just allowing yourself to fail and really, you’re not failing. You’re learning how to shoot. We introduce a concept called Victory goes to the Vulnerable. You’re going to be vulnerable sometimes. People are going to talk about your shot. That’s OK. We let people have their opinions. We don’t try and stop them. It’s all part of the process.”

Ah yes, the process.

If you listen to Brown, he has said on more than one occasion whether he played well or not, that all that he’s going through now is part of a process that will eventually make him a better person and a better player for the Celtics.

Part of that process is utilizing the various mental techniques and teachings of Betchart, who has known Brown since he was 15 years old and had a chance to spend a considerable amount of face-to-face time with him this past year when Brown was at Cal.

Most of what Betchart talks about has a strong basketball teaching component to it. But at the end of the day, there’s a lot more going on.

“Everybody starts to realize these are life skills,” Betchart said. “It’s tough to separate basketball from life. You’re going to be who you are on the court, off the court. These skills, learning to control what you can control, being present, moving on after mistakes, this is what we leave in life as well, learning how to be vulnerable in life and do those things. It naturally gravitates towards life and … what’s going on in life. It’s a natural progression. They’re human beings who choose to play a sport for a living. They are not basketball players; Basketball is what they do.”

A. Sherrod Blakely can be followed on Twitter: @SherrodbCSN

OFFSEASON

Boston Celtics officially announce five signings

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Boston Celtics officially announce five signings

The Boston Celtics announced Wednesday that they have signed free agent guard/forward Gerald Green, re-signed center Tyler Zeller and signed 2016 NBA draft picks forward Jaylen Brown, guard Demetrius Jackson and forward Ben Bentil.

More to come...