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The Celtics can finally start tightening the screws

The rebuild is over. It’s winning time.

Boston Celtics Media Day Photo by Maddie Meyer/Getty Images

The team that preaches freedom and looseness will continue to do so while squeezing more efficiency from its shiny roster than ever before.

Conventional wisdom says that teams have two avenues by which to improve: better personnel, and/or existing personnel getting better. The Stevens’ era has so far been marked by ingenious resourcefulness, which in reality was code for coaching smartly and forging success from absence. This year, abundance is the name of the game: the Celtics have both flavors of “better.”

The media, doing what media does best, spent a good part of the last week sounding the same dilemma: “well, gee, how’s it all going to work? Isn’t too much of a good thing bad after all?” Unfazed, every single player, exhausted by the repetition but doing their best impersonation of a smiling patient person, intoned an answer so solid in its harmonic unity it would break any Prisoner’s Dilemma trap of tempting players by placing one player’s reward above another. And so each one of them said something to the effect of “we’re playing for Banner 18, the roles will sort themselves out, etc.”

Boston Celtics Media Day Photo by Maddie Meyer/Getty Images

All healthy living systems engage in a subtle dance to adapt to current conditions, otherwise the system breaks. Think about your teeth, for example. When a new hunker of a molar comes in, neighboring teeth subtly shift around and re-orient themselves to make room for the new guy. It’s crucial this happens, otherwise you run the risk of suffering the same violent fate as Rudy Giuliani’s bottom teeth. Factor in that these Celtics are a healthy, growing organism — where a power-up in pace as suggested by Terry Rozier would grow the total size of the pie — and you realize that Stevens could have as much as a handful of extra possessions a game to dole out to those hungry deserving mouths. And Scary Terry can eat.

Dear Celtics, you have said all the right things and made me grin like a baby enthralled by shaking maracas. Laced in everyone’s comments thus far are hints of specific personal summer assignments that will, in their totality, if fulfilled, largely help ease the redistribution of tasks in order to boost team efficiency.

Marcus Morris talked about further establishing himself as a defensive force, smartly realizing that this year’s starting lineup lacks no offensive firepower (what’s left unsaid: Coach said to sunset last year’s much needed, trigger happy substitute-in-a-starring-role performance — unless it’s to catalyze the BWA — and put on his Philly tough suit).

Aron Baynes cited doing more of the same this summer in addition to becoming a better student of the game (what’s left unsaid: the Celtics’ best defensive rotation featured Baynes, but the team’s now looking to him to have an increased awareness of his surroundings and see an uptick in his reaction time as a help defender and after he corrals an offensive rebound, FOR EXAMPLE).

Cleveland Cavaliers v Boston Celtics Photo by Maddie Meyer/Getty Images

Likely a pre season optical illusion, Al Horford looked a little beefier to me around the shoulders, which matched his newfound embrace of anchoring the team at center -- saying it would give the team more explosiveness (what’s left unsaid: the Celtics need to make minutes appear in their rotation for Tatum and Hayward and the best way to do that is to shift Horford to the 5, where not only minutes open up, but so do space and opportunities for both himself and the team to see the hoop through the large men in the paint).

Marcus Smart, the leader of the Bombs Away squad, said what we’ve all been waiting to hear. Last year, he trimmed the fat on his frame, and this year, he promised to pare down the shots that make us all reach for our Xanax (what’s left unsaid: hopefully there’s a “shot quality” bonus trigger in his new contract). This team is extremely self aware, and we’ve already begun to see some of these individual refinements manifest on the court.

Watching the first three pre-season games, the one expression that keeps ringing inside my head (despite the early hiccups) is “what an embarrassment of riches.” At first blush, the depth seems problematic, but there’s been an emphasis on making players more themselves.

And thus, Operation De-cramping The Lineups is under way. Jayson Tatum, who outside of his three minute eruption in the second pre season game has struggled with his shot thus far, insisted that he’d shed his rookie skin and its nervous lining, and talked about practicing shooting 3’s off the dribble to keep pace with the league being onto him, and getting stronger to deal with the league literally being on him.

Jaylen Brown talked about improving his free throw shooting, which would seem to be within his grasp given his improbably improved outside shot last season. He’s a freak driver in space whose unique strand of creative stubbornness refuses to let contact dissuade him from finishing at the rim, and confidence at the line will only help make good on those opportunities. This year might be the year where we get to see Jaylen punishing smaller opponents down low unfold into yet a new facet of his game.

These are players that sound like they’ve been hard at work cooking and cultivating skills on an assembly line that are actually ready to ship in in-game situations.

Even last year’s team mascot, Yabu, has vowed to make the most of every minute he bounds down the court; his joyful energy is still there, but this year it’s been matched with an unmistakable purposefulness.

So embarrassing are those riches, that the Celtics brought every piece back for reasons of flexibility and added strategic specificity. Every. Roster. Spot. Matters. Lest we forget the head scratchers the Warriors drew scrutiny for like the time when the ball ended up in Quinn Cook’s hands at the end of Game 5 in the WCF. Baynes might not start as often this season, but you better believe that he is going to factor into the many collisions with the 76ers down to his last foul and continue to give Joel Embid TTT’s (Twitter Temper Tantrums about manbuns disguised as meme-tastic digs). Stevens has a little bit of a hockey coach’s mentality, with a penchant for lineup maneuverability that allow him to both dictate matchups and quash important opponents’ advantages with tactical precision.

Throwing different looks at teams is literally what enabled the thin as hell Celtics to advance past two playoff opponents and minutes away from a third with just about zero margin of error. Just when it looked like Khris Middleton was the all-skinny, all-world offensive-defensive combo ready to annihilate the Celtics, Marcus Smart rejoined the team with a ginger hand and said not so fast with his smothering physicality. When Giannis Antetokounmpo looked practically unstoppable with his three point layup stretch ability, Semi Ojeleye was inserted to play the role of the obnoxious air hockey goalie whose wide stance and incessant small steps seem to perpetually drown the goal line from sight. Embiid took the bait on the 1-on-1 game within the game diversion and tried to truck through Baynes almost every time down the floor, such that when Horford tagged into the game, he was the fresher, superior player.

Philadelphia 76ers v Boston Celtics - Game One Photo by Maddie Meyer/Getty Images

And they did it all last year by playing trudgingly by Stevens’ standards. There’s an adage about needing to be in the top-10 in offense and defense to win it all (consider that they had the 18th best offensive rating last year and the league’s top defensive rating; 8th and 12th respectively in ‘16-’17 season, 13th and 5th respectively in ‘15-’16); this would be the first Stevens’ team to crack the top-10 in both offensive and defensive rating, something they should be able to manage with all those tunings.

Contrast the already apparent maturity of every Celtic recognizing what will be needed from them if they want even a chance at besting the beasts in the West with the cantankerous Jimmy Butler, saying summer after summer that he doesn’t think he needs to improve his outside shot in order to be valuable, and you realize that this team is playing a very different game: coordinated, focused, and with their eye on the prize. (As an aside: I particularly enjoyed the usually measured Jackie Mac come out and say what’s been on a lot of our minds; Jimmy Butler has whined his way out of two franchises now” — complete with a sarcastic boo-hoo-hoo gesture.)

Does a player or two emerge from the pack and sing their own tune, or does this continue to be an ensemble cast all the way to the top? As Uncle Drew would say, “play the game the right way, young blood”. Young and old, every player seems to agree with that statement. It’s going to be fascinating to see if everyone can remain tethered to the pack and sustain the promise they made to each other when the inevitable friction of the season starts to whisper sweet splintering temptations into very deserving players’ ears.

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