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Reports: R.J. Hunter nearing deal with Bulls 10.26.16 at 7:39 pm ET
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R.J. Hunter

R.J. Hunter

The Celtics may not need to wait too long before they see R.J. Hunter as an opponent. According to The Vertical, Hunter is nearing a deal with the Chicago Bulls, the only team with an open roster spot — who will also face off against the Celtics on Thursday in Chicago.

Earlier in the day, Adam Himmelsbach of the Boston Globe reported that Hunter was “very close” to a deal.

Hunter was waived by the Celtics on Monday after being passed on for the final spot on the roster in favor of James Young. 

Described as a pure shooter when the Celtics took him in the first round, 28th overall out of Georgia State in the 2015 draft, the 23-year-old struggled to find his form with the C’s, shooting 36.7 percent from the field and 30.2 percent from 3-point range.

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Celtics Pregame Notes: On Opening Night, Celtics not looking to get ahead of themselves 10.26.16 at 6:25 pm ET
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Brad Stevens

Brad Stevens

With the start of the Celtics season set to begin Wednesday night against the Nets, it will also be the first regular season indication of what the 2016-17 Celtics — and all the hype, expectations and concerns surrounding them — have to offer.

Speaking prior to the game Celtics head coach Brad Stevens isn’t trying to get ahead of himself.

“I just hope we play well tonight. That’s the bottom line, there’s 82 of these,” Stevens said. “The last thing anybody is thinking in there is what happens down the road. We have to play well, and you look at this stuff, and I’ve said this before, we’re as close to second as tenth. So I understand [the pick to be contenders in the East], but I understand we better play well.”

The roster won’t necessarily have the look Wednesday that it will as soon as mid-November due to injuries to Marcus Smart and Kelly Olynyk, but that notwithstanding, there will still be indications left and right of what the Celtics look like both offensively and defensively.

And with some new faces via both the draft and free agency, there’s new roles to be established and claimed in the early going.

“I’m anxious to see what we look like on both ends of the floor. We’re going to have some guys that haven’t played as much here that are going to have to contribute for us to have success, so I think that’s another thing I’m interested to see how that goes,” Stevens said.

“We’re going to have to play well, and that’s going to be a constant thing. The team that plays the best and the team that plays the most together and the hardest and everything else usually wins and we’ve got to really challenge ourselves to be the best version of ourselves in as many of the 48 minutes as possible.”

There will be a void off the bench, however, as Kelly Olynyk is still some time away from returning to game action, something the 7-footer didn’t see any of during the preseason with a right shoulder injury. He saw the surgeon that performed the surgery on Tuesday, and though him timetable has become more clear — which was as much detail as Stevens divulged — he is still a few weeks 

“He’s still probably a couple of weeks away, but he’s doing 5-on-5 and it’s just a matter of ramping it up so that the next day the fatigue is less and less. He will not participate in every 5-on-5 segment, but each day will be ramped up and increased a little bit more. Again, it’s more about the fatigue in his shoulder after the fact,” Stevens said.

Even still, Stevens has an idea of how many players he’s trying to utilize in his rotation, even though Olynyk and Smart won’t be available anytime soon.

“Not tonight, just simply because the fact that two of them that are probably in it, or at least have been mainstays in it, are out,” Stevens said when if he knew who the guys are that will be consistently in the rotation. “I think ideally you’d like to play in the 9-to-10 range. I’ve got an idea right now, but it’s based on a month of work and the exhibition games and everything else. But this is why these are such important games for the guys that get to play when others are out, because this establishes a trust of consistency, right, so that you can see them doing their job on every possession.”

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Defensive versatility is everything to Brad Stevens, and Terry Rozier ready ‘to take care of business’ 10.26.16 at 11:54 am ET
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Terry Rozier

Terry Rozier

WALTHAM – How will the Celtics cope without Marcus Smart for the first two weeks of the season? 

Ask Brad Stevens that question and he’ll give the same answer that he has for everything involving his defense-based system. 

“I think we were third or fourth last year, so it was pretty good. The bottom line is we have to be more versatile defensively,” Stevens said Tuesday when Smart and the team announced that his left ankle would sideline him for at least two weeks.

“You have to be able to do more things. We have to be able to tweak on the fly, we have to be able to adjust if something is killing us and be able to play either big or small. I think it will be interesting to see what our best lineups are that separate themselves. But our idea is that we should have some versatility. But, again, I think defense is one of those things that you gotta go out there and do it. It’s not about talking about it. It’s not about the anticipation of how good we can be. That’s an everyday commitment and thus far we’ve done it at a pretty good level, but we’ll see.”

Smart’s injury also means significantly more opportunity for Terry Rozier to continue what he showed in Summer League and camp and preseason. 

“He comes off the bench and he’s not playing, so it’s a bigger opportunity for me,” Rozier said of Smart. “It’s a step up, something where I have to be ready when my number is called. Be ready to take care of business. I want to come in and play my part, whether it’s scoring some nights, or just getting starts. The main thing is I want to play hard and do that every night.”

In Rozier’s mind, the best preparation for an increased role has been facing Isaiah Thomas and Avery Bradley every day in practice. 

“I think IT said it best – when you play against those two every day in practice, when you get out there in a real game it’s looser,” Rozier said. “You’re not having guys all over you like it is in practice. That’s a big help, something you have to take advantage of when you get out on the court, because in practice you’re not getting that breathing room.

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NBA preview 2016-17: Can Celtics close gap on Cavaliers? 10.26.16 at 11:20 am ET
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Horford-Al-Celtics 10-4-16

With Al Horford on board, the Celtics are a popular pick to reach the Eastern Conference finals this season. (Bob DeChiara/USA Today Sports)

As the Celtics begin their journey to Banner 18 with Wednesday night’s opener against the lowly Nets, optimism runs high in Boston. And it should, because this team should have an entertaining and successful regular season.

But any Celtics fan rooted in reality knows this to be true as well: This team is not built to win a title.

No doubt you’ve already read plenty of breakdowns about how a team needs a true star to win an NBA championship, and even the C’s front office has acknowledged there is a piece missing from this club.

On the positive side, the offseason acquisition of free agent center Al Horford was a good one, and it presents an apt comparison for this Celtics team in Horford’s former employers.

Two years ago, a smart young coach took a team with rising stars but no superstar and led that squad to an impressive 60-22 record — best in the Eastern Conference (by a whopping seven games over the Cavaliers) and second best in the entire NBA. In the playoffs, Mike Budenholzer’s Hawks took out the underwhelming Nets and Wizards in six-game series. Then, faced with LeBron James’ Cavs in the conference finals, Atlanta became the fourth No. 1 seed in NBA history to be swept in a playoff series.

The postseason awards were telling. Budenholzer was named Coach of the Year, but no Hawks were on the All-NBA first, second or third teams. Nor was there a Hawk found on the All-Defensive first or second team, or the All-Rookie first or second team.

In a nod to the team’s balance, the entire starting lineup — Horford, DeMarre Carroll, Kyle Korver, Paul Millsap and Jeff Teague — was named Eastern Conference Player of the Month for January after Atlanta went 17-0 to start the year. But that was it for major awards.

Like those Hawks, these Celtics have solid balance and depth, crucial factors to help overcome injuries that are sure to pop up during the season. And with the Eastern Conference perhaps even less challenging than the last couple of years, a run at 60 wins is not out of the question. But come playoff time, temper those expectations.

Fortunately for the Celtics, even if this year turns out similarly, they are in a much better position to rectify the situation, as they are likely to draft in the top three the next two years, courtesy of the Nets. Or, if another general manager has the guts to deal with Danny Ainge this season, the Celtics could acquire a proven star and make a run at a championship next spring.

For now, let’s focus on a regular season that is sure to entertain the TD Garden crowds.




1. Raptors, 54-28 — Toronto will battle the Celtics for second place in the Eastern Conference (with both teams ready to pounce if the Cavaliers get stung by the injury bug), but the Raptors lost a key piece in defensive stopper/rebounder Bismack Biyombo, and the team’s only offseason acquisition, former Celtics big man Jared Sullinger, already is injured.

2. Celtics, 52-30 — Evan Turner has his detractors, but he did come up big in the clutch a number of times for this team last season. This is the biggest concern for this team: Can the C’s close out tight games, especially with their questionable outside shooting and the lack of a proven finisher outside of All-Star guard Isaiah Thomas?

3. Knicks, 42-40 — Jeff Hornacek takes over a team that added former Bulls stars Derrick Rose and Joakim Noah to a roster led by Carmelo Anthony and Kristaps Porzingis. As Tuesday’s season-opening blowout loss to the Cavaliers showed, this team isn’t likely to be a threat, although if the stars are healthy they could make a little noise.

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Classy move by Celtics for always-classy Craig Sager 10.25.16 at 8:08 pm ET
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WALTHAM — The battle of Craig Sager has been one that has touched nearly everyone in the NBA.

The most colorful broadcaster in sports is again battling acute myeloid leukemia.

After practice and before speaking with reporters, coaches and players put on multi-colored spotted shirts, symbolic of the bright and colorful suits only Sager could wear. The team then took a picture and shouted the words “Sager Strong!” to a camera for the purpose of sending get-well wishes to the man who has become an institution on NBA sidelines over his long and successful career.

The shirts are for sale for $29.99 at the SagerStrong Foundation website, with proceeds going to benefit the foundation’s mission of cancer research and education. 

For Sager, who announced in March that his cancer had come out of remission, the prognosis is not great, and that was evident again on the face of Isaiah Thomas Tuesday after Celtics practice.

“These [shirts] are Craig Sager. A guy that means a lot to this game of basketball,” Thomas said with a heavy heart. “A guy who means a lot to the NBA, the NBA family. And we just wish him well, and we’re praying for him and his family daily. The shirts are nice. They look like something he would wear. I wouldn’t wear them but I know he would.”

Sager’s son, Craig Jr. helped save Sager’s life as he was a match for the bone marrow transplant needed to push Sager into remission in 2014. But in March, doctors had told him that he had 3–6 months to live without treatment. On July 29, Sager underwent bone marrow surgery.

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Isaiah Thomas on season: ‘If we put it all together, we could be special’ 10.25.16 at 3:40 pm ET
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WALTHAM – Isaiah Thomas is well aware of the lofty expectations of most Celtics fans this season. 

The All-Star guard from a year ago has his own goals heading into the 2016-17 season opener Wednesday against the Nets. 

“To be another All-Star. All-NBA. Win a playoff series and go from there. That wasn’t in order, but those are definitely goals of mine. And first off, I definitely want to win a playoff series. So that’s the most important. But individual things, I have a lot of goals I want to achieve.” Thomas said after Tuesday’s final practice before the opener. 

The Celtics are coming off a 48-34 season in Brad Stevens’ third year with the team. What is the next step? What is the potential of this Celtics’ unit?

“If we can put it all together, we could be special,” Thomas said, before hedging. “I’m not going to say we’re going to go to the NBA Finals or do none of that, but like I said before teams know we can be really good. We just have to put it together and find our identity, which is on the defensive end. And if we do that everything else will take care of itself.” 

Thomas was asked if he’s going to be paying any attention to the season of his opponent Wednesday night, the Brooklyn Nets. If the Nets finish with the worst record in the league, the Celtics will have a very good chance of the top overall pick. 

“I worry about scoring the ball, getting my teammates involved and winning games,” Thomas said. “I don’t know nothing about those first-round picks. And I wasn’t a first-round pick so I don’t care about first-rounders.”

What Thomas has seen so far in practice and the preseason gives him plenty of reason to be optimistic. 

“We played pretty well. I think overall as a group we’re ahead of the curve. We showed glimpses of how good we can be, and then we also showed glimpses of we’re not that great at the same time. But that happens in preseason. So hopefully we got all the kinks out and we can be perfect [Wednesday].”

Thomas sounded anxious to get past the preseason and the practices and start playing games that count.

“They’ve been important,” he said of preseason games. “Paying attention to detail more. Just trying to lock in on the things we do well and get better at the things we don’t do as well, and worry about us. Now it finally means something to play. So, we’re ready. I’ve been ready. I’ve been ready for the preseason to be over and things to start counting.”

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Marcus Smart out for 2 weeks to start season: ‘It sucks’ 10.25.16 at 2:57 pm ET
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WALTHAM – When Marcus Smart went down with a left ankle injury against the Knicks in the preseason finale, he knew the timing was bad.

Smart has been working hard ever since the end of Game 6 of the Hawks series to be the leader of a Celtics team ready to take that next step. Then he took a wrong step against the Knicks last Wednesday and his season has been put on hold for at least two weeks, as he announced after Tuesday’s practice. 

“A couple weeks. That’s the projection that they gave me, really just not trying to rush anything and just trying to make sure that we can limit this from happening again,” Smart said. “We’re taking every precaution we can with it.” 

But that means Smart, the projected sixth man for Brad Stevens, won’t be suiting up against the Nets when the season tips off Wednesday at TD Garden. 

“It sucks. It does suck just because you work so hard and, especially with these guys out here, you’ve been in the battles in practice and the fighting, and preseason,” Smart lamented. “I mean, the last game of preseason you get hurt, everything’s going wrong for you. But I’m optimistic about it and this team is. I’m just waiting to come back and get on the court with those guys.”

The best sign Tuesday was the sight of Smart on the sideline, chirping at his teammates and not wearing a boot on the injury foot.

“I’m feeling better. The swelling’s going down,” Smart said. “I’ve been in the training room, working with those guys and trying to help strengthen the ankle and get all the fluid out. It shouldn’t be too long. But like I said, better safe than sorry.”

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