Full-strength Celtics shaping up as challengers

Celtics guard Jaylen Brown and Cavaliers guard George Hill tussling for the ball in their pre-season game on Oct 2. The teams will be vying for supremacy in the Eastern Conference again but Boston have a clear edge after the departure of LeBron James
Celtics guard Jaylen Brown and Cavaliers guard George Hill tussling for the ball in their pre-season game on Oct 2. The teams will be vying for supremacy in the Eastern Conference again but Boston have a clear edge after the departure of LeBron James for the Los Angeles Lakers.PHOTO: EPA-EFE

LOS ANGELES • The Boston Celtics, with Kyrie Irving and Gordon Hayward back from injury and youngsters Jaylen Brown and Jayson Tatum maturing, are tipped for big things in a National Basketball Association (NBA) Eastern Conference now devoid of LeBron James.

James and the Cleveland Cavaliers denied the injury-hit Celtics in Game 7 of the Eastern Conference Finals last season, but a full-strength Boston squad have caught the attention of many - including Klay Thompson of the reigning champions Golden State Warriors.

"I like the team out East in Boston," Thompson said when asked who might pose the biggest threat to a Warriors title three-peat.

"I think that they are going to be a team to be reckoned with."

Celtics guard Irving shared the same thoughts.

"Can we beat Golden State in a seven-game series? Yes," said Irving. "Because of who we have and what we're establishing here, not just for this season but hopefully for the next few years."

Irving missed the last 15 games of the regular season and the play-offs owing to a knee surgery, but the former Cavaliers star insisted that he is now healthy.

UPBEAT FORECAST

Can we beat Golden State in a seven-game series? Yes. Because of who we have and what we're establishing here, not just for this season but hopefully for the next few years.

KYRIE IRVING, Celtics guard, expressing optimism over a possible Finals match-up.

He added that his prior experience against the Warriors - the Cavs won just once in four straight NBA Finals against Golden State - could help get the Celtics over the line if they come up against the reigning champions.

Ahead of Boston's first game against the Philadelphia 76ers this morning (Singapore time), Irving also indicated he did not want his free agency next year to detract from their more immediate goals.

"I believe Boston is the place for me," he said. "I'm looking forward to the challenge this year."

Aiding that challenge will be Hayward, who missed 81 games after horrific ankle and leg injuries in last year's season opener.

But the forward will be able to play only "25 minutes per game", as Celtics coach Brad Stevens gradually eases him back into the team.

"He'll be a little bit restricted from a minutes standpoint as we progress through this early part of the season, so that he's feeling great towards the end of the year and the years beyond," Stevens said, as reported by NBC Sports yesterday.

 
 

Hayward, meanwhile, is eager to get going, saying that last season's adversity strengthened the Celtics, with Tatum, Brown and Terry Rozier rising to the occasion.

"There's going to be situations where somebody is going to get hurt again, somebody's going to be sick, somebody's going to be having a bad game as it happens every year for every team," he said.

"To have so many guys we can rely on, who can go get a bucket, who can go get a big-time stop - that's huge for us as a team."

AGENCE FRANCE-PRESSE

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on October 17, 2018, with the headline 'Full-strength Celtics shaping up as challengers'. Print Edition | Subscribe