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The Celtics are taking this training camp very seriously, and it shows

Coach Joe Mazzulla is working his Celtics hard this preseason.Matthew J. Lee/Globe Staff

The encouraging aspect of this Celtics training camp is they aren’t viewing this month-long stretch as a mere formality in preparation for what they hope will be a monumental season. In other words, the Celtics are taking camp seriously, using it as an opportunity to learn new teammates, new systems, and a new approach.

“Practice has been hard as [expletive], I ain’t gonna lie,” forward Jayson Tatum said. “But it’s been good.”

Tuesday’s preseason game was another example of coach Joe Mazzulla’s constant experimentation. He opted for Jrue Holiday in the starting lineup alongside Derrick White in the backcourt, while Al Horford came off the bench.


The starting lineup is still to be determined for the Oct. 25 opener against the Knicks, with six players vying for five spots. And Mazzulla has left open the possibility of alternating starting lineups depending on the matchup.

Against the Knicks on Tuesday, Porzingis was matched up against Mitchell Robinson, one of the league’s few legitimate centers. And the finesse 7-foot-3-inch Porzingis fared well defensively in the paint, which is one of the Celtics’ concerns with their revamped lineup.

They traded their most bona fide center in Robert Williams to acquire Holiday, so Porzingis, Horford, and perhaps Luke Kornet or even Wenyan Gabriel will have to combine to adequately defend centers such as Robinson.

Tuesday night’s results were positive. Porzingis was able to compete in the paint with Robinson, even blocking one of his dunk attempts. And Porzingis’s perimeter shooting forced Robinson away from the basket, giving the Celtics more opportunities in the paint.

Mazzulla decided to play the starting lineup for extended minutes against mostly Knicks backups, and the Celtics not surprisingly led for most of the night. And what is evident is that the first group, including Holiday, is rapidly developing chemistry.


“We’ve been all putting in our minds that we’re going to play for each other,” Porzingis said. “We’re going to enjoy each other’s success and Jrue has been phenomenal from the moment that he got here. He was able to jump in with us and be a great teammate. [He’s] being the same dog that he is on defense and then making the game easy for me and for us offensively also. He’s been nothing but awesome.”

The ball movement was crisp, and with the number of offensive weapons on the floor, there is certainly going to be a shooter open, The Celtics just have to find that shooter.

The quartet of Tatum, Jaylen Brown, Porzingis, and White combined for 14 3-pointers, and Horford added two. Mazzulla played his top six players at least 23 minutes each, offering a taste of potentially the NBA’s best starting five.

“It’s just easy to play with those guys,” Porzingis said. “They draw so much attention, you get wide-open threes, wide-open looks, and they find me and I just shoot those shots. It’s really simple. It was a good game for us to keep building that chemistry.”

The question for this group is defense. With the loss of Marcus Smart, Robert Williams, and Grant Williams, Tatum, Brown, and Porzingis will have to improve their defense. And Tatum especially placed as much emphasis Tuesday on his defense as on scoring. He finished with 28 points in 30 minutes, but he gave maximum effort at both ends.


The Celtics are taking this preseason seriously. There are no excuses, as there were last season, when Mazzulla took over suddenly for the suspended Ime Udoka and had no idea of the enormity of his new position. Mazzulla is more relaxed in his second season and more focused on the basketball aspect of his job, instead of answering questions about Udoka, and about his own meteoric rise from Division 2 head coach to NBA head coach.

“I actually don’t remember much about the beginning of last year, it happened so fast,” Mazzulla said. “But credit to them, for most teams training camp ends on the first preseason game, but our guys have brought a training camp approach for most of October. You can’t take those things for granted. It’s just something we have to continue to work toward and fight for.”

Without those distractions, with the Celtics still angry from their embarrassing Game 7 performance and disposal by the Heat, there is an increased focus in October. The practices have been intense. The addition of assistant coaches Sam Cassell and Charles Lee has improved team culture and management ensured that no primary player will enter this season with a contract issue.

Tatum said he notices Mazzulla is more comfortable with his situation and staff, and he’s taking more control of the team’s fate with his demanding regimen.

“I give Joe a lot of credit,” Tatum said. “I’ve seen the growth. Not that he didn’t do a great job last year, but we’ve just had more time to prepare. He’s able to get his staff he felt like supported him in the best way and he’s helped change the culture in a lot of ways. I feel like he’s had a huge imprint on how he wants things to be, how he wants practice, how he wants the vibe to be.


“And we’ve all bought in. But Joe has done a great job of taking charge, doing things how he wants it to go. It’s been really cool to see that.”

Gary Washburn is a Globe columnist. He can be reached at gary.washburn@globe.com. Follow him @GwashburnGlobe.