MEMPHIS — Prior to the season, president of basketball operations Danny Ainge said he wasn't sure what to expect from the Celtics, a bunch of thrown-together pieces in Year 2 of the organization's rebuilding plan.
Ten games into a season in which the Celtics have been competitive in all but two games and have four losses by 5 points or fewer, the team is beginning to gain an identity.
Point guard Rajon Rondo, the subject of trade rumors for two years whose position in the organization is precarious at best, is pleased with the team's progress.
"We've got to go with the flow [of who's here]," Rondo said. "We don't make the front office changes. Me personally, I do like our identity. We're a unique team. Our bigs are our shooters on the team, for the most part. We saw [Wednesday] against Philadelphia how we closed the game out. [Jared Sullinger] hit some big shots for us."
The Celtics have become a perimeter-oriented team because of their big men's ability to stretch the floor with outside shooting. While Sullinger and Jeff Green have gotten off to slow starts, the Celtics still threaten defenses with 3-point shooting, an element they lacked in the past.
"We put teams in different positions," Rondo said. "The [centers] aren't used to closing out to the 3-point line. You can't close all the way out on a guy like Sullinger or Kelly [Olynyk]. I like the way we're going. I'm a pass-first point guard. I like to get to the paint and make plays for my teammates, and we definitely have shooters around me to make shots."
These Celtics have different characteristics than some of the teams Rondo played on in his previous eight years.
"People still say it's a rebuilding year for us, but we really don't look at it as that," he said. "The East isn't as strong — again. A lot of teams are 4-6 or whatever their record is, it's pretty ugly. But we have a chance. If we put three or four games together, we'll probably be No. 2 in the East."
Rondo rolled his left ankle in the second half of the win over the 76ers but said he received treatment Thursday and will be available for Friday night's game against the Grizzlies.
Not feeling well
The Grizzlies announced that seven players, including former Celtics Tony Allen and Courtney Lee, are questionable for the game because of a stomach virus that has struck the team. Lee, Allen, Beno Udrih, Jon Leuer, and Kosta Koufos did not play in Wednesday's 96-92 loss to the Raptors.
The Grizzlies, who have the best record in the league at 10-2, also announced that rookie Jarnell Stokes and swingman Quincy Pondexter are questionable because of virus. Memphis core players Marc Gasol, Zach Randolph, Mike Conley, and Tayshaun Prince are expected to be available.
"Even [Wednesday] night, five guys are sick, they have a 5-point lead late in the game against Toronto," Celtics coach Brad Stevens said. "These guys are playing really well. The bigs are obviously, with Randolph and Gasol as go-to guys in the post. They've got a lot of guys who fill their roles exceptionally well. It's a heck of a challenge."
The Grizzlies also announced they waived guard Kalin Lucas, who played five minutes Wednesday, and center Hassan Whiteside.
Marcus Smart took another step toward returning to the court, running in a straight line on Thursday less than two weeks after sustaining a frightening ankle injury against the Pacers.
Stevens even suggested that Smart could return for Sunday's game against the Blazers. Smart, however, said, "I doubt I'll play Sunday."
"A lot better actually, I got a lot more movement done and the pain that was there when I first hurt it isn't as bad," Smart added. "One day my body feels good, one day it doesn't. I just have to listen to my body."
Smart said he hasn't performed any lateral movements, but the fact he is even walking without a considerable limp is encouraging given the seriousness of the injury.
"I'm surprised that I'm this far ahead in the progress stage," he said. "But it's still a slow process. There's some pain there, I'm just trying to get through the pain. This is the most [time] I've ever missed, a game, practice, ever since I started playing basketball."