WALTHAM — Celtics coach Brad Stevens began formulating possible rotations and player groupings in his mind several months ago. Some of the ideas were based on what worked and what failed last season, but with new players and new roles, much of it was simply projecting.
Now that the Celtics have completed three full days of practices, though, Stevens will soon gradually begin testing his visions. Just as cheese complements a hamburger, certain skill sets mesh well with others.
“Like, if you’re playing with Isaiah [Thomas] and you can space the floor and shoot the ball, that’s a good skill to have with Isaiah, because he’s going to be able to get into the teeth of the defense,” Stevens said. “If you’re a big that does something different than the other bigs and can manage any of your potential weaknesses, that’s good, because being able to complement the other guys is important.”
Last year’s roster was so unsettled that it was sometimes difficult for players to develop cohesion.
But aside from some minor tweaks, the core of this group mirrors last season’s. And the two key veteran additions — Amir Johnson and David Lee — already have drawn praise from coaches and players for their ability to adapt and even pass along morsels of wisdom to the young players. Stevens said that Johnson is actually a good complement to almost anyone.
Forward Jared Sullinger said that on-court cohesion is ultimately built through familiarity. Players won’t know who plays well together until they are actually on the court to try.
“If I know me and Kelly [Olynyk] and even me and Amir are in the game, and sometimes Amir pops [to the perimeter], I know I’ve got to dive to the bucket,” Sullinger said. “Little stuff like that. As time goes on, you see things in practice that are really special and then you see things in practice that are really just like, ugh. But that’s gonna happen in the first couple days.”
For Stevens, identifying the pieces that fit best will be a challenge, but it is also something he relishes. In the end, he said, it boils down to a somewhat simple notion.
“Just whether or not they’re gonna win when they’re in,” Stevens said.
Through the first three days of practice, Stevens has focused on the team as a whole. But in Tuesday night’s intrasquad scrimmage at TD Garden, he will hand the reins to his assistants and mostly evaluate the players through his own prism.
“After that, we’ll start to talk more about how we want to progress with lineups and such,” Stevens said.
Less is better
The Celtics’ upcoming trip to Europe allowed them to start training camp several days earlier than most other teams. Although the one-week trip figures to be somewhat draining, Stevens is thankful that it resulted in having one less preseason game than usual.
“I think I’m among a group of coaches that would vote for even less in the preseason,” he said. “And I think that’s just kind of the general consensus.”
Stevens said next week’s games against Olimpia Milano and Real Madrid will be good tests because both teams have been practicing longer than the Celtics.
“We’re going to have to keep up with their pace at both ends of the floor,” he said.
Strong on defense
The Celtics gave forward Jae Crowder a five-year, $35 million contract in large part because of his defensive intensity. And during Monday afternoon’s practice, he showed a glimpse of it.
The team was taking part in a three-on-two drill in which the two defenders stayed on defense until they were scored upon. It’s generally pretty easy to score in a three-on-two situation, but during one lengthy stretch, Crowder and Johnson teamed up to stop nearly 10 attempts in a row—though they were aided by some missed open jump shots.
“We’re gonna be here all day!” Crowder yelled excitedly, daring a teammate to score.
Finally, Thomas ended the drill by draining a long jumper.