SALT LAKE CITY — When the Warriors officially announced the signing of Kevin Durant on Thursday, a collective shudder reverberated through front offices around the NBA. A team that won an NBA-record 73 games last season had somehow become significantly better, if that is even possible.
But Celtics president of basketball operations Danny Ainge, for one, is not simply giving up hope, not even after Boston’s flirtation with Durant fizzled.
“They are an outstanding team, and nobody can deny the great talent that they have,” he said of the Warriors. “But we’re not going to just lay down and die, I’ll tell you that. When you don’t get what you want, you have to keep fighting.”
So Ainge and the Celtics continue to comb through free agency, explore trades and evaluate their roster here at the Utah Jazz summer league. Boston solidified two more pieces Thursday night, guaranteeing the contracts of forwards Amir Johnson and Jonas Jerebko.
Those moves would put the Celtics’ roster at 13 players, not including restricted free agents Tyler Zeller and Jared Sullinger or any recent draft picks besides No. 3 overall choice Jaylen Brown.
“We are still looking at doing deals,” Ainge said, “and we’re certainly not finished for the summer.”
Ainge said that Ante Zizic, the Croatian forward who was the 23d overall pick of this year’s draft, had returned to Europe and would play there next season. He said a final decision had not been made on the Frenchman Guerschon Yabusele, who is part of Boston’s summer league team. But Yabusele has made it clear he is open to playing overseas, and it would be surprising if he does not end up there this year.
Ainge said Boston’s most pressing needs remain outside shooting and finding a stronger center. He has been in touch with Zeller and Sullinger and said the dialogue would continue, but it did not sound like a deal with either player was imminent.
The $12 million expiring deal of Johnson and the $5 million expiring contract of Jerebko — both good values — could be attractive trade chips. But Ainge made it clear they are being retained for more than that.
“Amir and Jonas are two of coach’s favorite guys,” he said. “They play hard. They are loved by their teammates and they had terrific years last year for us. We’re excited to have them back.”
Ainge, who was scheduled to catch a late-night flight to Boston on Thursday night to attend Al Horford’s introductory news conference Friday morning, said he could not go into detail about Horford because his contract — a four-year, $113 million deal — had not been signed yet.
But he said the Celtics took differing approaches in their recruitments of Horford and Durant, because the two are unique players and personalities. The meeting with Durant, of course, included Patriots quarterback Tom Brady, who attended the session in the Hamptons as a favor to Ainge.
Durant and Brady had met once before, and Ainge told Brady that Durant was a big fan of his. Some have wondered why Boston didn’t appeal to Durant’s love of the game’s history by sending at least one of the franchise’s living legends — perhaps Bill Russell, Bob Cousy or John Havlicek — to meet him.
According to Ainge, that approach was discussed in great length, but there were some time conflicts and there was some concern about simply having too many people in the room.
“This was a good experience for us to go to pitch to Al, then pitch to KD,” he said. “I think we all learned something from it. I think we got better from Al to the KD one, even though we didn’t land KD. I think it was a fun process. It was good for our team. And it was good for team-building with the players and the coach.”
After former Celtics guard Evan Turner agreed to a four-year, $70 million deal with the Trail Blazers last week, he said he had left Boston partly because he had to wait until the pursuits of Horford and Durant were complete to see if there was room for him.
Ainge acknowledged that timing factored into not bringing Turner back, but he also said that Turner really had no choice but to accept Portland’s massive offer. The absence of Turner, who finished fifth in voting for the NBA’s Sixth Man of the Year award last season, will be the most significant one for the Celtics.
“I think that Evan is not someone you can just easily replace,” Ainge said. “We’re going to have to make some adjustments.”
“Some guys are going to have more of the ball-handling responsibility on our team. Evan’s defense was good for us last year as well. His experience [helped], but we’re going to have to make do.”
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Second-year guard Terry Rozier scored 7 points in the final 51 seconds as the Celtics rallied from a 6-point deficit to take an 87-86 win over the Spurs in their final game of the Utah Jazz summer league on Thursday.