WALTHAM — The Celtics returned to the court as a team Saturday for the first time since being swept from the first round of the playoffs by the Cavaliers last April. New faces mixed with old ones, and the tone was predictably optimistic.
The players talked about improving upon their 40-42 record from last year. They talked about becoming an elite defensive group. They talked about what might be possible.
“The first practice is the first time a lot of us are together, especially bringing in guys that just got drafted as rookies,” guard Marcus Smart said. “So we’ve got to try to introduce them to things — the plays, the calls. It’s always good to get that first practice out of the way, and it’s just a teaching point.”
The Celtics held two practices Saturday and met with the media during the break in between. The first session, coach Brad Stevens said, was rather basic.
The team watched some film and talked once again about how fine the line is between finishing fourth in the Eastern Conference and finishing 12th. Stevens began to harp on the importance of driving to the basket or shooting 3-pointers rather than taking long, contested 2-point jump shots.
On film, he pointed out little things, the fleeting moments that ultimately can be the difference between winning and losing. Success this season will be fragile, and the coach wants to make that clear.
“It was very similar to Steve Kerr last year, actually,” said forward David Lee, who played for the NBA champion Warriors last season. “They have a lot of similarities. They’re very positive. They’re teachers on the floor. It’s important to be a teacher with the amount of young guys we have. But all the little details are very important to him. And those details are the things that win basketball games.”
On the court, the Celtics worked on rotations and completed some five-on-zero sets that were focused on transition “just to get their minds back into that mode,” Stevens said. And then they ended with a brief shooting competition. Stevens said no one stood out because the setup was not designed for anyone to stand out. It was more of a rust remover and a primer than an evaluation period.
But the second practice was scheduled to be more intense, more competitive, more like a training camp practice in which players will begin tussling for their roles.
“Every year is a competition, but we love it,” forward Jared Sullinger said. “We’re having a lot of fun. Everybody’s getting used to how one another plays and, you know, let the story begin.”
This is a deep team, so one of Stevens’s greatest challenges will be creating a regular rotation. He said it is inevitable that some players will be frustrated with their lack of playing time, but that is what comes with depth.
For the past two months, Stevens has been considering various combinations of players who might perform well together. But now that the season is here, he does not intend to rush the process.
He would like to have an initial rotation in place by the time Boston faces Olimpia Milano in Italy in an exhibition on Oct. 6, but cautioned that that plan would also shift by the time the regular-season opener arrived three weeks later.
Sullinger, whose summer conditioning program was one of the primary story lines of this offseason, said the trip to Italy would also help him gauge how far he has come.
“Everybody can be excited the first day and just go all out,” he said. “But when you start getting deeper in practice and practice is more hard and the focus is just running the offense and there’s more competition, that’ll be a sign if I’m there or not.”
The Celtics understand they still have time to find their rhythm and their rotations. But they also understand that the process will move quickly, so Saturday’s arrival was greeted warmly.