Hold off on those Celtics obits just yet

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Hold off on those Celtics obits just yet

By Rich Levine
CSNNE.com

MIAMI When a celebrity reaches a certain age, is diagnosed with a devastating disease or starts to live an especially reckless lifestyle, its common practice for news organizations to preemptively write an obituary.

Thinking back to the last few years of Bob Hopes life, there were a few different occasions when his obituary prematurely released to the public. When Elizabeth Taylor passed away last month, the man whose byline appeared on her obit had been dead for six years. On that note, I wouldnt be surprised if there are already a few Charlie Sheen drafts floating around newsrooms across the country.

You probably already knew that, but hey, Im trying to start a column here.

In a way, its a strange to know that these obituaries exist while the subjects are still alive, but I guess you cant fault anyone for thinking ahead. In a world where so much of what happens is entirely shocking and unexpected, its only natural, almost practical, to prepare for the inevitable. It helps with deadlines, eases stresses, even allows for a better product.

Not to mention its something we all do in our everyday lives, as well.

I used celebrities as an example, but it obviously goes much deeper than that with individuals, experiences and relationships that we hold far dearer than Bob Hope, Elizabeth Taylor or Charlie Sheen. Whether its a sick family member, a doomed relationship, a cross-country move or change in jobs, we spend a lot of time contemplating how circumstances of our present life might end, so that were not entirely blindsided when they do.

At times, that borders on pessimistic and unhealthy, but it does serve a purpose. You dont want harp on the negative, but youd also be careless to ignore its existence all together.

For all these reasons, both practical and emotional, weve spent the better part of the last four years preparing for the end of the Celtics' run among the NBAs elite.

From the moment they got together in the summer of 2007, through the immeasurable levels of optimism and excitement, there was always the recognition that it wouldnt last forever. At first, we gave them a three-year window. Eventually, that was extended to four, with plans laid for a fifth. But while the end was never set in stone, it was always well in sight. And before long, even through the immense success of that first season, those preemptive obituaries slowly began to take shape.

The 2008 championship may have actually expedited the process.

By winning in their first year, the Big Three era became an immediate and eternal success. This team wasnt assembled to only win one title, but after 22 years of nothing, one title was really all anybody needed. It immediately answered all the most important and terrifying questions: What if this doesnt work? What if they dont win? What if they never win? When they did, Boston was free to watch the rest of this cores time together without the fear that Danny Ainges historic experiment would come up short.

We were unbelievably fortunate for this. In fact, it empowered us. And because we never feared the end (not that we were ever looking forward to it) we always looked it right in the eye, and waited its imminent arrival.

In turn, that led to a whole bunch of premature obituaries.

The first ones leaked in the spring of 2009, after it became clear that Kevin Garnetts initially diagnosed two-or-three-week knee injury was far more severe. Will he ever be the same? In that case, will the Celtics? Might this already be the end? A second-round exit, and confusion over what really happened with KG, only increased the speculation.

The team fought off death for the first time that fall, thanks to the addition of Rasheed Wallace and the return of Garnett, but the Grim Reaper quickly resurfaced, as KG struggled to regain his swagger and the rest of the team limped around alongside him both physically and mentally. As they slept-walked through the season, there were serious talks of trading Ray Allen, and many fans had come to accept the possibility. Have they gone as far as they could together? Is it already time to reload? Are they better off without the Big 3?

It was by no means a consensus, but there were plenty of people ready to pull the trigger and send the obituary off to print. The Wizards will give up Jamison AND Butler!? Later, Ray! Its been real.

Ray stayed, but the struggles continued, and the Cs headed into the playoffs at an all-time low. Again, they were done. Again, they had nothing left. Again, it was OK, lets watch them get eliminated by the LeBron, bang out a new opening paragraph and bury these guys at sea . . .

Nope. Not yet.

The Celtics, of course, made one of the most inexplicable turnarounds in NBA history. One that, in retrospect, makes a lot more sense, but in the moment was more unlikely than Andrew Bynum getting an invite to Christmas at the Bareas.

Their legendary run came up 20 minutes short, but the Celtics proved once again, that they couldnt and shouldnt be counted out, no matter how dire the circumstances.

Yet, before the last piece of confetti even hit the Staples Center floor, the obits were back. There was talk of Docs departure, Allens free agency, Paul Pierces option and just the general feeling andor fear that theyd let their last chance slip away.

But not so fast!

Doc was back. Paul was back. Ray was back. They added Jermaine ONeal, Shaquille ONeal and Delonte West. Rondo was now an All-Star and on his way to being a superstar. Kevin Garnett was reinvigorated.

They addressed all the problems, and suddenly they were better equipped than ever before.

After the trade deadline, they were never worse.

They swept the Knicks . . . theyre alive!

They lost the first two in Miami dead!!!

Game 3 blowout . . . they have a chance.

Fourth quarter of Game 4 . . . Yes!

Overtime . . . No!

And here we are. The obituaries are all lined up and ready to go, and it feels like weve never been closer to actually hitting the send button . . .

Then again, weve felt that way so many times before.

Maybe its crazy to think they can pull it off, but maybe its just as crazy to count out a team thats proved you and everyone wrong so many times before.

Or maybe . . . I dont know.

All I know is that theres nothing unrealistic about believing, as long as you never actually lose sight of reality.

And weve never done that with this team.

Weve always been well aware that it can end at any second. Probably even a little more aware than we needed to be. Weve always known that their time atop the Eastern Conference would come to an end. That it would probably happen at the hands of LeBron (although we never imagined the lengths hed go to). That it would leave the Big Three looking old, tired, slow and worn down (although we never imagined Rondo would be in the worse shape of the four and Perk would be in OKC). That the loss would signal a time of serious flux and indecision within Celtics Nation.

And we know tonight could bring that upon us.

But we also know it wouldnt be the first time this team defied the odds on their own mortality and lives to see another day.

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

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.”