MILAN — The Celtics return to normalcy Tuesday, back in Boston after their European journey. They have three more weeks to prepare for their season-opening showdown with the Miami Heat.
That preparation was made more important by a rather distasteful loss to Fenerbahce Ulker Friday in Istanbul, a 97-91 defeat that exposed the fact that even though the Celtics are laden with talent, if they are lackadaisical or lack focus they will be out-executed.
They spent the first half attempting to showboat and entertain the fans at the Ulker Sports Arena and then the reserves spent the second half trying to rally, but they were hindered by a bunch of turnovers.
On Sunday in Milan, the Celtics were more focused against Emporio Armani Milano in their 105-75 win. Rajon Rondo was brilliant with 17 first-quarter points and the team was able to entertain the fans with a dominant win.
The games allowed the Celtics to regain the chemistry created by their workouts in Waltham that began in early September. Rondo organized those sessions and several of the team’s newcomers and rookies showed up at the Sports Authority Training Center eager to build cohesion so there wouldn’t be such a long learning process during the preseason.
“We’re a month and a half into this process,” guard Jason Terry said. “And it was all [Rondo]. He’s the leader of this team. And him bringing us together meant a lot because, as you can see, our chemistry is pretty good out there, guys knowing where to be and when to be there. We’ve still got a ways to go. But as far as a lineup, this is a deep team.
“I think on a nightly basis, and I’m not Doc [Rivers] by any means, but there is the ability for us to play different lineups. The NBA game is all about matchups.”
Said Rondo: “Our chemistry has developed so early because we came in Sept. 4. I’ve been working with [Terry], I’ve been working with Fab [Melo] as far as pick-and-rolls offensively and defensively, and right now, each game we just want to try to get better and it’s only been two games but I think we’ve made strides.”
What Rivers was able to do in Istanbul and Milan was mix and match lineups. He is like a teenager playing with an iPhone in terms of his versatile roster. The Celtics’ added depth allowed him to place rookie Jared Sullinger in the starting lineup Sunday; starting power forward Brandon Bass scored 11 points off the bench.
The Celtics know they didn’t face versions of the Washington Generals. Boston had trouble containing Fenerbahce Ulker’s Romain Sato, and also stopping Fenerbahce’s pick-and-roll offense. EA Milano may have made the game more competitive if it had converted more than 9 of 30 3-point shots.
“[We take away] a lot, these teams are very, very, very good,” forward Jeff Green said. “Shooters all over the floor, they move the ball very well. They get up and down the floor. There’s a lot of teams in the NBA that do that, so we’ve just got to take what we learned and make the best of it.”
Off the floor, the Celtics bonded over team dinners, sightseeing trips, and appearances at NBA Cares events. The NBA set up public appearances on each stop, and while participation is usually reserved for rookies and lower-level players, the entire roster worked with Turkish children Thursday in Istanbul. Paul Pierce made a random appearance at a Milan shopping area.
“It’s amazing how big our game has grown and how many fans we have over here,” Pierce said. “It was a lot of fun to be able to enjoy it with the fans. It’s like a way of giving back. These people appreciate not only myself but my team, the whole NBA. A lot of them stay up late nights just to watch the games and for them to get a player in here to interact with them . . . I thought it was fun.”
There were plenty of questions about the Celtics’ last visit to Europe (Rome and London in 2007) and how it served as a prelude to the team’s title run. The Celtics were integrating several new players and had hopes of being an elite team in the Eastern Conference. Rivers said he has no issue comparing the trips, especially if this season concludes the way 2007-08 did.
“I think we’ve adopted the country of Italy, I really do,” Rivers said. “In 2007 we go to Rome and make a lot of friends and win the world championship, and you can see that now we’ve come here to Milan and let’s do it again. I hope Italy is a lucky charm. We talked about it the other day. We’re going to play it that way for sure. We believe that. We hope that. The entire country, get behind us and pray for us and [do] whatever it takes because we want to win another title. We really do. Coming back to this country kind of refreshes memories for all of us.”