After the holidays, the NBA set-up a conference with some members of the Eastern Conference-leading, Boston Celtics and the NBA Global Media. Joining the conference call were Al Horford, Jayson Tatum, Daniel Theis, Aron Baynes and Coach Brad Stevens.
Q: The start of the season so far for Boston has been very, very good. You’re currently in first place in the Eastern Conference. Do you think that this season you really have all the tools to fight against Cleveland in the postseason and to try, of course, to reach the NBA Finals?
AH: Yeah, I mean, I feel like we’ve been playing really good basketball, like you said. I feel like we have a really young group that our guys just keep getting better as the season goes along. As a group, we’re going to keep getting better, and I do feel like we have what it takes to contend for a championship.
Q: What have you learned about Kyrie Irving that has made you improve your game?
AH: Kyrie is a great competitor. He’s a guy that has proved that he can play at a really high level, and I think that he’s made our team better. He has, in his own way, challenged me to be better, especially to be more aggressive on the offensive end, and just striving to be a better player. So it’s been a lot of fun being able to play alongside him.
Q: We spoke to you in September and you were quite optimistic about what the Celtics could achieve this season, even though there was a lot of doubt based on changes that happened during the offseason. Do you think you can have fun being part of a successful team, or are you too involved in the process of winning night after night to enjoy the progress made by the Celtics?
AH: I think the focus always has to be on the night tonight, but I do sit back and look at the big picture. We’ve had a lot of adversity as a group, a lot of guys that have never played in the NBA that have come in and had an impact. I look at all that and I do appreciate the progress and how well we’ve played. But then also at the same time, I always bring myself back down, and it’s important for us to focus on the game to game and the process and just continue to get better. And I think that’s the key for our group.
Q: I just wanted to ask you about the resiliency of the team and the way you guys have handled the ups and downs of your season, particularly losing Gordon Hayward so early and having guys’ roles change. What is it about the group that has handled this so well, and how have you seen that evolve over the season as guys have sort of rolled with all the punches?
AB: Yeah, it’s definitely been a big change from the beginning. You can’t ever make up for what you lose in Gordon, but it’s one of those things where we’re getting different things from different guys and everyone is trying to take a little piece of what he brought to the team. We can’t really replace what he’s going to bring, so we’ve incorporated a few different things. Some guys have gotten a lot more playing time as well, and that’s really been able to progress us along.
Q: I would like to ask you about the difference and the similarities you show playing for two of the best franchises in the NBA. You played for the San Antonio Spurs, and now you are playing for the Boston Celtics. They are two teams with a great tradition. What are the similarities and the differences you find out playing for them?
AB: Yeah, one of the biggest things I learned in San Antonio is less is more. Pop [Gregg Popovich] always preached that when we are working, we put everything we’ve got into it and we do everything at game speed and try and get the most out of it, but when we’re not, then you’ve got to get off your feet and try to recover because we play 82 regular- season games. It’s a long grind, and you want to stay as fresh as possible for the game time. You don’t want to burn yourself out. It’s about playing late into June. That’s when every team still wants to be playing, so you can’t really go out there and use it all up straightaway.
Coming in here to the Celtics, Coach Stevens is all about getting off the feet as well, but we’re also learning while we’re off our feet. He really emphasizes us watching a lot of video and film and breaking down games and just trying to learn that way as well. Everyone is trying to be a student of the game here under Coach Stevens. I’ve been lucky, with both coaches I’ve gotten more about basketball than I’ve ever learned. I’m just trying to learn every single time around them and soak up as much as I can.
Q: How does it feel being one of the fans’ favorite players in Boston, and did you expect to play such a role? And the second one is are there any personal teasing with other German NBA players because you are the only one playing on a team at the top of the league?
DT: First off, I would say the Boston fans are special anyway, so every game is sold out. Every play I get, it’s loud from the fans for me. I mean, I should say some fans. It’s an honor for me, for sure. I just try to play like I’ve played the last years, bring energy.
And the second one, for the other German players, now in Chicago they’ve made a run. They’re getting better. They have played the last year on the highest level. [Chicago’s Paul Zipser] played a lot of games. So I hope all the other German players and teams they play for, they’re going to get better this season.
Q: You’ve excelled in your role coming off the bench now for years. Can you explain why this role suits you so well? And can you tell us how many friends and family will come over to the London game from home?
DT: I don’t mind starting or coming off the bench for the game. Like I said, I’ve been doing this in Bamberg for years. I just try to bring energy, play defense when I step on the court. For me, it doesn’t matter if I start the game, come off the bench or whatever, so whenever the team needs me, I try to be ready.
I’ve got my brother coming with his girlfriend to London. My wife is coming from Boston to London. And I’ve got some friends or people I know that play in London, like all around London, soccer, they’re coming to the game, too.
Q: How different is the NBA’s playing style from the playing style in Europe? And how much did you have to adjust to play as big of a role as you are playing now with Boston?
DT: I would say the NBA game is a little bit — it’s faster, more athletic than Euro, and also offensively you take open shots. Even if it’s the first pass, you take it if the open shot is a good shot. In Europe, we used to play in Bamberg, you run through the system, you make the defense run, so you are a little bit more patient.
Q: Which was the biggest adjustment from the college basketball game to the NBA game for you? And did you expect to be so effective shooting from the three-point line?
JT: No, I didn’t. I’ve been working on it a lot, but I didn’t think I would shoot it this well. And the biggest adjustment is just we play so many more games than we do in college, so you’ve got to really take care of your body.
Q: Considering how well you are playing, you’re shooting so well from the three-point line and you’re definitely one of the best rookies so far in the season, do you have the Rookie of the Year award among your goals for this season?
JT: Yeah, that’s always been one of my goals, to win that award. But I think just focusing on team goals first, and if we keep winning, the rest will take care of itself.
Q: You are very consistent since the beginning of the season. How did you accomplish your transition into the NBA one year after college?
JT: I think playing for Coach K and Duke prepared me. I just carried that over to this season. Just come in every day and work hard and just try to get better.
Q: As we know, you are one of the best defensive units in the NBA right now. How did it transform from when you lost Gordon Hayward to where you’re one of the best defensive teams in the NBA? And another question is how would you rate Brad Stevens as a coach, and do you think he should be winning this year’s Coach of the Year award?
JT: Obviously, when Gordon went down, it was tough. Basically, everybody had to do more on the offensive end and defensive end. We had to come together and still find ways to be effective and win games, and we really triggered in on defense.
We have the best record in the East, and obviously Brad is one of the best coaches in the league. Hopefully we keep winning, and we’ll see what happens.
Q: Did you expect the success of this team?
JT: No, I didn’t. Obviously, when Gordon got hurt, people got more playing time and got more opportunities, and guys just had to step up. From that being the first game of the season, we had to catch on quick.
Q: I want to ask you about Kyrie Irving as a teammate. How is he with the team? What kind of advice does he give to the team when you guys are about to play?
JT: He’s a great person. He’s a great teammate. He’s always working and leads by example. Any questions that we have, especially younger guys, he’s always willing to help and show us things and just talk us through film or anything like that. So he’s just an all-around great teammate.
Coach Brad Stevens
Q: What is it like working with such a young, talented group? Also, what it is like to be compared to Gregg Popovich because of the impact you’re having?
BS: Well, first and foremost, I really enjoy coaching this group. We have a long way to go. I don’t think we’re playing at the level of a 60-win team, so we’ll find out how good we are when everything is done.
As far as being compared or talked about in the same breath as Coach Popovich, I would have to check the source and tell them they probably don’t know what they’re talking about. I’m not in that ballpark, and I’m pretty cognizant of that. This is a league that is incredibly humbling to be a part of because the players and coaches are so good.
Every single day you have to stay on your toes just to survive, and I think that that’s something that you don’t take for granted.
This is a difficult task against the best of the best. To be compared to somebody like Pop, again, it’s flattering, but I don’t take it too seriously because I know how far away I am from a guy like him.
Q: I would like to know about Kyrie Irving. We know he’s one of the best players in the league. I would like to know where do you think he can get better — defense, leadership?
BS: I think he can get better in every area on the court, and I think the best players in the league consistently have that focus. If you look at the last few MVPs in the league, especially as you go through [Stephen] Curry and then [Russell] Westbrook, the jump they made from the year before to their MVP year was as big as anybody. I think sometimes we look at most improved players as people that come off the bench and then start or go from not playing to a sixth man role, and we miss the fact that oftentimes the best players in the league are the most improved players from year to year, and there’s a reason why they’re where they are.
Kyrie works the right way. He’s got a great attitude about it. He wants to be great. He doesn’t take for granted what he’s already achieved. He works to be great the next day. And that’s why I think he’ll keep getting better.
Q: How important is it for the players and the league to play overseas?
BS: I think we all recognize the impact of the NBA but certainly the impact of basketball across the world. I think of all the many incredible things that basketball has given to me, it’s been the opportunity to go to different places because of the game. When I was a college player, I played in four different countries in Europe. When I coached at Butler, we took our team to Finland. We took our team to Italy. We had set up a trip to go to Australia right before I left.
As part of the NBA, I’ve already gotten a chance to coach in Madrid and Milan and also go on an NBA Cares trip to Johannesburg, and now we get to come to London. Without basketball, I don’t get to go to any of those places.
To me, it’s just another thing to speak to why we’re so thankful to get an opportunity to do what we do, and kind of, I guess, the global impact of the game and how we’re all tied by the love of the game, and I think that that for a basketball junkie like me is the fun part of it.
Photo from Boston Herald