Fans expect Celtics to play up to expectations

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Fans expect Celtics to play up to expectations

By A. Sherrod Blakely
CSNNE.com

WALTHAM Boston Celtics coach Doc Rivers loves Celtics Nation. Their passion, the fact that they want nothing but the best - and will let you know in emphatic fashion if you come up short - is exactly what makes this basketball-crazy region so unique.

Rivers understands all too well the second-guessing that has come about since the team traded away Kendrick Perkins, a deal that both Rivers and Danny Ainge, Boston's president of basketball operations, have said was difficult but necessary for them to move forward.

The only way to silence those critics is to go forth with a strong showing in the playoffs which begins Sunday night as the Celtics host Game 1 of their first-round matchup against the New York Knicks.

Boston has been on a roller coaster of sorts since the Feb. 24 trade, evident by their glass half emptyhalf full record of 15-12 in the post-Perkins era.

As much as the struggles have helped to bring a team together that's very much a work in progress, it has also served as a reminder for Rivers just how passionate fans are around here during the good and not-so-good times.

"I know the big picture," Rivers told CSNNE.com on Saturday. "And the fans are no different than me. I'm a fan of the Celtics in some ways, and I expect us to win. So when they're frustrated, I can guarantee you that there's no fan that can get more frustrated than I am already. I actually don't mind that. Even when we were bad, I said that. At least they care. I'd rather have that, then the apathy and the indifference and 'you suck,' and don't even come to games."

But there are some fans who have not quite let go of the team's decision to trade Perkins, a player who has been pivotal in the success of the Oklahoma City Thunder.

In a season that has been filled with its share of grey areas, support for the Celtics, in Rivers' mind, is a black and white issue.

"You're either a fan or not," he told reporters earlier this week. "I've always said that. There's nothing wrong with being disappointed in wins and losses."

That's a given in any professional sports market. But in New England, a market driven by some of the most passionate fans in sports, it's not that simple.

These fans are educated enough about their teams to know when they are playing at a level consistent with their talent.

And the Celtics know, based on their roster, they should have a better overall record than 56-26.

However, this season has been easily the most unique and to a large degree, most challenging of the Big Three era.

When Kevin Garnett and Ray Allen joined Paul Pierce in 2007, there really was only one way to go - up.

The only question at that time wasn't whether they would win a championship, but could they do it in their first season together.

After steamrolling through the regular season, the Celtics had the best overall record and were the odds-on favorite to win it all.

They lived up to the lofty expectations and brought home Banner 17.

And the fan's response?

Nice. Now go get Banner 18.

A knee injury to Kevin Garnett sidetracked their plans to repeat, and a Perkins injury weighed heavily in the C's Game 7 loss in the NBA Finals last year.

With the Celtics loading up on veteran talent this season, anything short of winning it all will again be a disappointment.

"That's what our fans have come to expect from us," Ainge told CSNNE.com. "And we expect that from ourselves. That's why you play the game, or you should play the game, to be a champion. We have a team full of guys who believe that."

But there are times throughout the season when the Celtics, like many NBA teams, seem to not play at a level consistent with what you need in order to win a championship.

He'll occasionally deliver the good-isn't-good-enough sermon. In case they don't get it, he has Celtics Nation coming in with the chorus.

However, intertwined within those goals is reality.

And for Rivers, that's where things get kind of tricky for fans.

They expect greatness, but don't necessarily factor in the ups and downs that go into it, and aren't always patient enough to see the process through to its end before judging a deal or a player rotation, a bust.

"We did make a lot of changes, and that takes time," Rivers said.

And for fans who don't understand that?

"If you don't get that, I can't help you," Rivers said. "If you want to jump (off the Celtics bandwagon), I'm not going to be there with you."

A. Sherrod Blakely can be reached at sblakely@comcastsportsnet.com. Follow Sherrod on Twitter at http:twitter.comsherrodbcsn

The '86 Celtics Interviews podcast (Ep.8): Dan Shaughnessy

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The '86 Celtics Interviews podcast (Ep.8): Dan Shaughnessy

Boston Globe columnist, and former Celtics beat writer, Dan Shaughnessy sits down with CSN for an extended discussion on "The '86 Celtics Interviews" podcast. Shaughnessy talks about the greatness of that team and the players' surprising reaction when they found out he was moving from the Celtics to the Red Sox beat.

Starter, bench or DNP: Zeller ready for any role with Celtics

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Starter, bench or DNP: Zeller ready for any role with Celtics

Every weekday until Sept. 7, we'll take a look at each player at the Celtics roster: Their strengths and their weaknesses, their ceiling and their floor. We continue today with Tyler Zeller. For a look at the other profiles, click here.

BOSTON – The NBA is a league full of highs and lows for players.

There are few who understand this as well as Tyler Zeller, a player who has gone from starting to being a backup to not playing at all – at times in the same week.

And through it all, you never heard him gripe about it publicly or privately to teammates.

It’s among the many reasons you constantly hear his teammates talk about how much they respect the way he has handled some extremely difficult situations.

This past season was especially tough for him considering he was heading into free agency and looking to do all he could to not just win, but showcase what he could do as player.

There were many nights when Zeller didn’t have that opportunity, but he understood.

The Celtics have been and will continue to be a team that’s about finding ways to win and on many nights coach Brad Stevens decided to go in a direction that didn’t include Zeller playing.

As the summer dragged on and the Celtics’ joined the handful of teams that came up short in landing Kevin Durant, Zeller’s return became more likely.

And Zeller’s patience was rewarded with a two-year, $16 million contract with the second year of the deal being a team option.

Now that he’s back in the fold, what’s next?

The ceiling for Zeller: Part-time starter

It may not happen on opening night and it may not happen in the first week, or even first month, of the season.

But at some point, Tyler Zeller will be in the Celtics’ starting lineup.

And when he’s there, he’ll do a lot of good things that he has proven he’s capable of doing.

When it comes to running the floor in transition, Zeller has distinguished himself as one of the Celtics best big men.

The Celtics are big on playing with space and pace and there are few 7-footers who can run the floor as well as Zeller.

In fact, his PACE (number of possessions per 48 minutes) last season was 101.93 which was tops among all Celtics frontcourt players and second overall to guard Marcus Smart (102.46).

It’ll get the Celtics a few easy buckets here and there, but it won’t score enough points with the coaching staff to keep a starting job, which would then relegate him back to being one of the team’s frontcourt reserves.

Still, Zeller is a luxury that few teams have: a player who won’t get (overly) bent out of shape even if his minutes resemble this.

The floor for Zeller: On the roster

Zeller has spent the bulk of his NBA career as a back-to-the-basket center, but showed more desire to score more from the perimeter last season, which is one of the reasons why he shot a career-low 47.6 percent from the field.

He’s trying to expand his game because of the direction that the NBA is going with big men who need to be able to score further away from the basket in addition to providing a presence around the rim.

While Zeller has decent mechanics on his perimeter shot, it’s clear that he’s not yet totally comfortable being a “stretch big.”

According to NBA.com/stats, Zeller shot 30.9 percent from the field last season on wide open shot attempts from at least 10 feet away.

With the addition of Al Horford and the return of Amir Johnson as well as Kelly Olynyk, Boston has a nice group of stretch centers they can put on the floor. And let’s not forget about Jonas Jerebko, who closed out the playoffs as a starter for Boston.

Minutes will once again be hard to come by for Zeller with any kind of consistency.

In fact, there’s a very good chance that he will have some games in which he doesn’t play (coaches decision) at all.

And depending on injuries, he may have to be inactive at times just to ensure Boston has depth on the perimeter.

Whether he’s starting, coming off the bench or not suited up at all, Zeller is an important part of this Celtics squad. Above all else, he provides depth, which continues to be one of the hallmarks for this franchise under Stevens.

With Celtics on the rise, so is Isaiah Thomas’ brand

With Celtics on the rise, so is Isaiah Thomas’ brand

READING, Mass. – As Isaiah Thomas stood before a media scrum in the middle of his first basketball camp in New England, it was hard not to notice the Citi corporate backdrop behind his 5-foot-9 frame. And as you walk around gym at Reading Memorial High school, another sign with Body Armor SuperDrink, Hard Rock Café, Wilson and Welch’s Fruit Snacks among other sponsors, adorn a nearby wall.

Thomas’ rags to riches story is impressive when you stick to what he has accomplished on the basketball court.

But when you factor in the growing number of sponsors that have jumped on the Thomas bandwagon since he arrived in Boston, it’s clear his reach extends far beyond being just another player in the NBA.

Thomas will be the first to acknowledge that the perception of Boston and the reality that he has experienced in increasing his brand and overall awareness, are not one and the same.

“Ever since I’ve been here, people here have shown me nothing but love,” Thomas told CSNNE.com recently. “I know I’m blessed to be in the position I’m in, and I’m thankful that Danny [Ainge, the Celtics president of basketball operations] went and got me. Coming here has really been the best thing to happen for me, both as a player and as a person.

Thomas added, “Being a Celtic is something special; something that I don’t take for granted.”

The evolution of Thomas from the last player selected in the 2011 NBA draft, to being a sought-after player for the most storied franchise in NBA history, is the kind of Hollywood script that would become the lining to some hot shot producer’s trash can because it’s just not believable.

And yet it is indeed the story of Isaiah Thomas’ life, one that has made him a player whose magnetic smile, upbeat demeanor and talent have elevated him to a level few would have envisioned.

For Thomas, he sees the increased interest he has generated being about one thing: winning.

Prior to his first game with the Celtics, they were 20-22.

Thomas’ arrival in the middle of the 2014-15 concluded with Boston getting to the playoffs by winning 20 of its final 30 regular-season, which was a win total that was the third-highest in the league in that span of time.

And last season, Thomas’ first full season in Boston, the Celtics (48-34) finished in a four-way tie for the third-best best record in the Eastern Conference.

“Everything has gone up since I became a Celtic, and that goes with winning,” Thomas told CSNNE.com. “When you win and you’re seen a lot more, things start to happen for you. That says a lot about this organization and where I stand.”

Thomas’ standing as both a favorite of fans and corporate America isn’t all that surprising to Celtics officials.

“What makes Boston different than a lot of markets is how fans embrace the players and not just from a talent perspective, but from their personalities and the intangibles that they bring,” Rich Gotham, president of the Celtics, told CSNNE.com. “That’s what endears players to the Boston market and why fans follow them so closely. It affords them opportunities. A guy like Isaiah Thomas is a great example; we knew fans would love the guy. We knew what a competitor he was. We knew with him being a smaller guy, he was going to be the underdog-personality that fans like.”

Added Thomas: “People liked me a little bit when I played for those other teams and back home as well. But ever since I got on the Celtics, it skyrocketed. Everywhere I go people notice me and that says a lot because I blend in with everybody; I’m short just like everybody.”

While Thomas is admittedly short in stature, he continues to grow into a giant pitch man ranging from the shoe contract he signed with Nike last fall, to Citi, Good Humor Ice cream and Slim Jim beef jerky, just to name a few.

“It’s a blessing,” Thomas said of the uptick in endorsement opportunities. “I dreamed of things like this; for people to come for me for things like this … it’s a surreal moment.”

Thomas adds [seemingly on cue], “I’m excited for Citi … and everybody who is trying to partner with me.”