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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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Read More: Boston Celtics, Brad Stevens, Terry Rozier,
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.

Read More: Boston Celtics, Craig Sager, Isaiah Thomas, NBA
Isaiah Thomas on season: ‘If we put it all together, we could be special’ 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’ 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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Celtics cut Ben Bentil, hint that Gerald Green has made the roster 10.21.16 at 6:01 pm ET
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Ben Bentil

Ben Bentil

In the effort to trim the roster down to the maximum 15 players by next Wednesday’s opener against the Nets, the Celtics have said goodbye to another draft pick. 

The team announced Friday that Ben Bentil, the second round pick out of Providence this June (51st overall), has been released while veteran swingman Gerald Green will make the final roster to begin the season. Bentil does receive a $250,000 guarantee after signing his rookie deal after the draft. ESPN’s Chris Forsberg was the first to report the news. 

Bentil appeared in three preseason games for the Celtics, averaging 5.0 points, and 4.3 rebounds in 12.9 minutes per game.

Friday’s move means the Celtics roster stands at 16, one above the roster limit to start the season. Ainge indicated that former first-round picks James Young and R.J. Hunter are likely to battle it out for that last spot, unless he can swing a deal with a team, exchanging a player or two for a future draft pick. That would free up a roster spot and allowed the Celtics to finalize their opening night roster. 

Ainge indicated that he and the organization would likely take the weekend to consider all possibilities before making a move on Monday. Green said Friday he had not been formally told he had made the team and said he was still trying to prove himself after missing time at the start of camp with a hip flexor injury.

Friday’s move means the Celtics have just two of eight picks left on their roster from June’s draft: No. 3 overall pick Jaylen Brown and No. 45 selection Demetrius Jackson out of Notre Dame. 

On Thursday, the Celtics began their roster trimming by releasing camp invites Marcus Georges-Hunt, Damion Lee and Jalen Jones. All three players are expected to land with the team’s D-League affiliate in Maine, a possible destination for Bentil as well. 

Read More: Ben Bentil, Boston Celtics, Gerald Green, Providence College
James Young, R.J. Hunter battle for final roster spot 10.18.16 at 2:13 pm ET
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Oct 17, 2016; Boston, MA, USA; Boston Celtics guard R.J. Hunter (28) controls the ball while Brooklyn Nets guard Bojan Bogdanovic (44) defends during the second half at TD Garden. Mandatory Credit: Bob DeChiara-USA TODAY Sports

R.J. Hunter and James Young will have one more chance to strengthen their case for final Celtics roster spot (Bob DeChiara/USA TODAY Sports)

With one final exhibition game left on the schedule, the battle for the last roster spot has intensified. James Young and R.J. Hunter figure to be battling it out to the end. 

The Celtics have until the end of the week to determine who will fill out the back end of their 15-man roster and Young and Hunter have both made strong cases for themselves in their last two games.

Hunter, who has made the strongest statistical case of the two, scored a game-high 17 points against the Knicks on Saturday, capping off an impressive shooting performance. He scored 6-of-8 from the floor, including 2-of-4 from deep and not only knocked down open jumpers but made strong takes to the rim and got to the free-throw line. 

Young, on the other hand, followed up Saturday night’s Celtics win with his best performance of the preseason Monday night.

It may not have been as flashy as Hunter’s 17 points at Madison Square Garden, but Young (10 points, 4 rebounds, 3 assists, one steal) was able to make the most of his 16 minutes by stuffing the stat sheet in the win over the Nets at TD Garden.

He also looked a lot more comfortable on the floor, compared to the beginning of the preseason. 

“I’m way more confident in my game,” Young explained. “A lot of people are backing me up to just go and be aggressive, so that’s really helped me.

“I’m just trying to do a little of everything — scoring, rebounding, passing, and not to do too much at the same time. Whatever coach has drawn up for me I just do it and help out the team.”

Both Young and Hunter are scoring at a similar rate — making the choice between the two very difficult. Throughout the preseason, Young has averaged 5.1 points, 3 rebounds and shooting 45 percent from the floor in 15 minutes per game. While Hunter is averaging 6.1 points, 1.5 assists and shooting 44 percent from the floor.

However, Young has been an efficient 3-point scorer, shooting at a 42 percent clip, whereas Hunter — recognized as a precise 3-point shooter — is shooting 27 percent from downtown.  

Brad Stevens has certainly noticed the improvement, thus making the decision of cutting one of the two that much harder.

“They all really had good moments,” Stevens said. “As I said before the game, those are hard decisions because everybody’s improved. I thought they all played well at times.”

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Isaiah Thomas puts up 19 points in 15 minutes as Celtics run through Nets 10.17.16 at 9:51 pm ET
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(Bob DeChiara/USA Today Sports)

(Bob DeChiara/USA Today Sports)

The time remaining for the Celtics to tune up for the season is running thin — but they’re already looking to be in midseason form. Playing the same Nets team they will see in nine days on opening night, the Celtics ran through Brooklyn 120-99.

It only took 15 points for Isaiah Thomas to drop 19 points on the flimsy Nets defense. The point guard cruised into the paint — oftentimes untouched — en route to a perfect 6-for-6 from the field including a 3-pointer, as he played exclusively in the first half. 

“The lane was just open, I guess. Teammates just put me in position to try and be a little more aggressive for myself. I haven’t been that way this preseason yet. But teammates got me the ball in the right spots and I just did what I do, I guess,” Thomas said.

Thomas’ pace throughout his time on the floor was contagious and apparent from the onset, as halfway through the first period the Celtics surged to a 14-to-2 run that put them up by 13 points.

“We’ve been playing a lot better, things are slowing down for us,” Thomas said. “For the most part we’re getting there, we’re ready for the regular season to start so things can count, but we’re still working.”

The Celtics were playing with a regular season tempo that left the Nets visibly overwhelmed and outmatched. Though passing wasn’t as precise as it could have been at times, overall the Celtics transition game was quick and largely effective.

The bench didn’t make upcoming roster decisions for Brad Stevens much easier, as each player coming on demonstrated quite a bit of value in one form or another. The shooting stroke that James Young has struggled to consistently find was present on multiple occasions. R.J. Hunter continued to shoot the ball well from the perimeter. Demetrius Jackson grabbed the hustle play of the preseason, grabbing a steal and finishing it with a layup off an inbound pass following a Celtics basket, forcing the Nets to take a timeout from sheer frustration. 

“I thought they all had really good moments,” Stevens said. “I thought they all played well at times, and certainly we gave up some baskets in transition, we did some things we’d like to do better throughout the course of the night, not throwing the ball to the other team as a team. But that’s across the board, that’s not just young, that’s young and old.

“But everybody showed as they have the whole time that they continue to improve, which is a good thing.”

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