Celtics coach Brad Stevens and Clippers coach Doc Rivers on Tuesday teamed up for their annual Action for Boston Community Development (ABCD) Hoop Dreams charity event at TD Garden. And as employees of the corporate sponsors played on the parquet floor, it was impossible for Stevens not to think about what has taken place here, and what might come next.
“It’s fun for me to get back in the Garden,” he said, “because I haven’t been back here since we lost.”
He was referring to Boston’s Game 7 loss to the Cavaliers in the Eastern Conference finals. The Celtics coughed up a 2-0 lead in that series and missed out on perhaps their final chance to dispose of LeBron James en route to a Finals berth, and the sting from the defeat lingered. But it was eventually washed away by hope and anticipation. After all, the Celtics made that deep run without perhaps their two best players: Kyrie Irving and Gordon Hayward.
And now, with training camp set to begin in three weeks, those two are expected to be fully cleared to return from their injuries, and Stevens seemed to grasp what could be possible now, while also trying to temper the attached expectations.
“We can’t skip steps,” Stevens said. “We can’t talk about being the favorite. We can’t talk about being in the mix. We can’t talk about being a playoff team. We have to go back and earn all that with our work all the way through. The one thing I will say is, you’d rather be in the position of having expectations and having everybody back, because that means the guys in the locker room are the ones that earned it. And I think having earned expectations is a positive thing.”
Hayward suffered a season-ending ankle injury just minutes into the Celtics’ season opener against the Cavaliers last October. His rehabilitation process since then has been long, grueling, and productive.
Stevens went to San Diego a few weeks ago to watch Hayward work out, “and he looked really good.” Hayward is now back in Boston to continue his training.
“You can’t tell anything [about the injury], from my untrained eye,” Stevens said. “He looks good. He’ll be cleared to go some five-on-five here very, very, very soon — like, any time soon.”
Stevens said the Celtics are in line to have their entire roster healthy and fully cleared in time for training camp. Backup center Daniel Theis, who suffered a season-ending meniscus injury in March, is expected to be the last player to be cleared for full scrimmaging, but that will likely happen before training camp begins Sept. 25.
The Celtics dealt with a seemingly unending string of injuries last season, but those setbacks resulted in opportunities arising elsewhere. Jayson Tatum took on a larger role than expected after Hayward’s injury. Terry Rozier stepped in for Irving and Marcus Smart and shined.
If the Celtics are healthy, opportunities for some players could dwindle. It is a good problem when there are plenty of good players and not enough playing time for all of them. But on some teams, that can turn into a complication. Stevens is hopeful that it does not.
“I think we’ve got a really good locker room,” he said. “I don’t think it’s any secret to anybody that there’s only 240 minutes in a game, and if we all struggle with that more than just the human nature of being disappointed if you get taken out — that’s OK, that’s part of it — but if we struggle with that, then we won’t be very good, and if we don’t, we’ll have a chance to be pretty good.”
With so many weapons at his disposal, Stevens will also have even more lineup combinations to tinker with. But he has not really started thinking about that just yet.
“I’m more focused on how we want to play than how we’re going to rotate,” he said. “I mean if last year’s not the best example, I don’t know what would be. Things can change. Your rotation can change in a heartbeat. So you can work all summer on it and you’ve got to adjust in one day. I think the bottom line is we have an idea of who will play together and who best fits together and what lineups we think we’ll try to use, but we’ll see how it all shakes itself out.”
The Celtics are widely viewed as the favorites to win the Eastern Conference this season. But there will be competition. On Tuesday, Stevens pointed out that the Raptors finished four games ahead of the Celtics during the regular season, and now they have added former All-NBA forward Kawhi Leonard.
“Kawhi’s ability to impact a game on offense, on defense, I think the addition of Danny Green as well — that’s a really versatile, good team,” Stevens said. “Toronto was the best team in the East and they added one of the best players in the NBA. So I’m sure they’re excited about their team.”