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ORLANDO, Fla. -- Even before the walls started getting knocked down around them, the younger players of the Boston Celtics had banded together.
There was an immediate connection last season between the likes of Jeff Green, Courtney Lee, Avery Bradley, Rajon Rondo and Jared Sullinger, and a sense that they were the future of the team. This summer, they've watched their coach move on for a glitzier opportunity out west and seen veterans Kevin Garnett and Paul Pierce, the faces of the franchise, dealt to division rival Brooklyn in exchange for a future-minded package headlined by three first-round draft picks.
And with every move, they hear the whispers: Boston is rebuilding. The Celtics are tanking. After six seasons in the penthouse, everything is being razed.
|Courtney Lee and Jeff Green join Danny Ainge as they take in Tuesday's summer league game against the Pacers.|
Like basketball's version of a punk band, they've become downright defiant. Each member of the young core bristles at the suggestion that the team is rebuilding, adamant that there's enough talent remaining to be competitive.
That core is rallying around its new coach as well, pointing to what Brad Stevens did with a ragtag group of overachievers at Butler, taking the school to consecutive NCAA title games when few could have imagined such a feat.
The young Celtics would like to achieve similar success in Boston, no matter how crazy people think they are to aim so high.
"We're in the NBA for a reason. We might not have the star power as other teams, but we're here for a reason," said Jeff Green, who said he and his teammates take the talk of tanking and rebuilding very personally. "We're here to play basketball. We've been put on this team to play basketball and I feel like we can play with anybody in the league. It's only five-on-five. When you put our five best against any other five best, I feel like we will always have a great chance to win the game."
Green and Lee sat courtside with Stevens and Boston's front-office staff as the Celtics' summer squad edged the Indiana Pacers 76-74 on Tuesday at the Amway Center. Lee noted Bradley planned to soon join up with the group, and when Sullinger wandered over as Green was talking to reporters, Green stopped mid-sentence to offer "What's up, baby?" as the two exchanged greetings.
Sullinger, rehabbing from back surgery and serving as unofficial assistant coach with the summer squad in Orlando, was the first who publicly cringed at the idea of a rebuild earlier this week.
"When you have Celtics pride, you really don't have time to rebuild," Sullinger said Sunday. Later he added: "I think with the veterans we have like Gerald Wallace coming from Brooklyn ... and we have Jeff, everybody counts us out. But we still have Rondo. He won a title in '08. He knows what it takes. That 'rebuild' word, we really don't like it."
Green and Lee echoed those sentiments on Tuesday, wondering out loud why Boston can't be competitive immediately.
"I've been a part of rebuilding teams, and the talent we have on this team is a lot better," Lee said. "We still have an All-Star in Rondo; we have a forming All-Star in Jeff Green. And then you have key role players in myself, Jared and Avery, so I think it's all going to be a matter of everybody stepping up and contributing and playing at a high level to support the two that I mentioned. I think we'll be fine."
Added Green: "We're competitors. We look at it as a chance where we can prove a lot of guys wrong. I think we're still a great team. I think we're still on top of the East with the guys that we have."
Call them delusional, but these players have no desire to endure a season filled with losses. They recognize that there are no guarantees in playing for a high draft pick; they plan to control what they can, and that's the product on the court.
The young core is banking on chemistry, planning to lean heavily on the bonds formed last season to aid the transition process.
"That was the first time that I was on a team with guys with personalities similar to mine," Lee said. "Everybody is their own person and I get along with everybody, but when you find a couple guys that are similar to you in a lot of ways, it's only right that we clicked and we bonded and got along well. That's only going to help us going forward. We're bonding and we're building."
Notice he didn't say rebuilding.
"We've definitely [got] something to prove," Lee said. "A lot of people counted us out, but that puts that chip on our shoulders. You know the underdog always fights hard, and that's what we plan on doing."
That's music to the ears of Stevens, who appreciates that his guys are hell-bent on avoiding a downturn.
"That's what you're supposed to do: Prepare to win the next game," Stevens said. "That's what I was asked to do, and hired to do, and that's what I'm going to try every single minute of every single day to do. And I think that everybody I've talked to, that's the way they feel."
Green smiled when the conversation shifted to his new coach. He knows Stevens' résumé and wants to help him do exactly what he did at the college level.
"I've seen him with Butler, how he shocked the world," Green said. "I was happy with the decision. I called him right after I found out. I think he's going to do what he did at Butler, take that 'rebuilding' word out and we're going to be the Celtics again."