Celtics Week: IT still on the rise, looking at Brown’s ceiling and an early test

  • Celtics forward Jaylen Brown drives to the basket during a game against the Brooklyn Nets on Oct. 26 in Boston. AP

  • Celtics guard Isaiah Thomas drives past Charlotte’s Marco Belinelli in the first half of Saturday’s game in Charlotte, N.C. Several NBA experts predict the Celtics will win the Atlantic Division this season. AP

  • Boston Celtics head coach Brad Stevens talks to this team on the bench during the second half of an NBA preseason basketball game against the Charlotte Hornets, Saturday, Oct. 8, 2016, in Uncasville, Conn. (AP Photo/Jessica Hill) Jessica Hill

Published: 11/1/2016 12:10:25 AM

The Boston Celtics are back and there’s plenty of excitement surrounding this year’s team. Here’s a look at the rising success for Isaiah Thomas, the mystery surrounding Jaylen Brown’s ceiling and an early season test.

Long & short

Last week: The Celtics opened the season Wednesday with a slim 122-117 win over the Brooklyn Nets at TD Garden. Hitting the road for the first time Thursday, Boston fell to the Chicago Bulls, 105-99, and posted a 104-98 victory over the Charlotte Hornets on Saturday.

This week: The Celtics host the Bulls on Wednesday, visit the defending NBA champion Cleveland Cavaliers on Thursday and return home to host the Denver Nuggets on Sunday night.

IT’s chip

One thing that’s always stood out about Isaiah Thomas is the chip he plays with on his shoulder.

Last week, Thomas didn’t shy away from talking about that chip when asked about the Celtics’ upcoming draft picks from the Brooklyn Nets, saying, “I wasn’t a first-round pick so I don’t care about first-rounders.”

Spending the first three years of his career in Sacramento and half a season in Phoenix, Thomas always expressed his desire to be a starter. Often relegated to the second unit, he knew he was good enough to start and he’s never been afraid to say that.

“... who wants to be a sixth man? Everyone wants to start. That’s my ultimate goal,” Thomas told the Sacramento Bee in 2014 when he was backing up Eric Bledsoe and Goran Dragic in Phoenix. “But when it’s about winning ... you do whatever it takes to win, individual success will take care of itself.”

Thomas started just one of the 46 games he played in for the Suns before he was traded to Boston. Phoenix and Sacramento both struggled to provide Thomas what he needed to succeed.

Suns General Manager Ryan McDonough, a Hingham, Mass., native, even admitted in February, “I think in retrospect, trading Isaiah Thomas when we did was a mistake.”

Good thing Danny Ainge and Brad Stevens made a home for him.

And it turns out that maybe the chip on Thomas’s shoulder just balances him out enough to get those ridiculous, and-1 circus shots to fall every night.

The 5-foot-9 point guard is back at it, flanked by one of the deepest rosters in the Eastern Conference with the best up-and-coming coach in the league strolling the sideline.

Thomas has picked up right where he left off through three games, coming off his first career All-Star appearance last season. He combined for 74 points through three games this season, the most for any Celtic since Paul Pierce scored 90 in the first three games of the 2005-06 season.

A third-string point guard in Phoenix, not important enough to keep around in Sacramento. And now he’s the leading man for a team picked to win the Atlantic Division by 23 of 29 ESPN analysts before the season.

Pretty good for the very last pick of the 2011 NBA Draft.

First impression

Many struggled, and may still be struggling, to make sense of Boston’s No. 3 draft choice, Jaylen Brown. To be honest, the pure athleticism of the tall-and-lanky Cal product confused me at first.

And I’ll be the first to admit that I was angry about Ainge’s decision on draft night, dramatically tweeting, “Mark my words, screenshot this tweet, do whatever you gotta do: Jaylen Brown is trash and will not live up to No. 3 billing.”

Hot take, Michelle.

Maybe I should’ve thought about the fact that Brown would spend the next few months getting ready to fulfill his dream of playing in the NBA. Wonder what the guy who says he aspires to replicate Kobe Bryant’s work ethic was doing all summer? Getting better at basketball, apparently.

Sure, it’s very, very early in his NBA career. But it’s worth noting that Jaylen Brown was the first guy to come off the bench for the Celtics in the 2016-17 season. Sure, Boston is without Kelly Olynyk and Marcus Smart, but Stevens still put Brown, a 19-year-old rookie, in the game right away even with a few capable, and healthy, veterans sitting on the bench beside him.

He’s had his moments, nearly missing his first career layup in the season opener and committing a costly traveling violation in Thursday’s loss to the Bulls. But it’s clear that his athleticism alone will provide the Celtics with an advantage at some point this season.

His explosiveness has me glued to the seat whenever he’s on the floor. It feels like at any given moment, Brown could do something that’s rarely, if ever, seen on a basketball court.

There’s a chance that he may never pan out in Boston. But he’s definitely going to do some more things worth watching while he’s here.

Early test

The Celtics didn’t face LeBron James and the Cleveland Cavaliers until mid-December a year ago. And they weren’t the defending NBA champions then. But the C’s will get an early gauge of where they stand Thursday with a visit to Quicken Loans Arena.

The Cavs (3-0) will likely still be undefeated when Boston rolls into town. And the city of Cleveland could be celebrating yet another championship after a 52-year drought if the Indians can pull off one more win.

You’d have to imagine Brad Stevens & Co. would love to go into Ohio and spoil the party. Avery Bradley’s already having flashbacks of that buzzer-beating 3-pointer at Cleveland in February.

Win or lose, Celtics fans will know right away how far this team has to go this year. Let’s face it, LeBron and the Cavs present a measuring stick for all Eastern Conference teams. And it’ll be nice to get this out of the way early.

(Michelle Berthiaume can be reached at 369-3338, mberthiaume@cmonitor.com

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