Jaylen Brown throws down massive dunk on Joel Embiid

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Tuesday night was opening night in the NBA for the 2018-19 season. We kicked things off with a massive showdown between the Boston Celtics and Philadelphia 76ers in Massachusetts, and the matchup hand delivered a powerful dunk to jumpstart the year.

The play came as time wound down in the fourth quarter, with Jaylen Brown dribbling on the right wing as the 76ers struggled to recover on defense.

Thanks to a Sixers player down under their basket after a missed shot, Philadelphia was left defending a four-on-five situation. Brown got free run at the rim, with just Joel Embiid standing in his way.

Embiid wasn’t quick enough to block the young Celtics wing, and the result was an incredible power dunk — or perhaps power layup a la Blake Griffin — that excited the crowd at TD Garden.

I’m so glad NBA basketball is back.

Celtics GM Ainge on Kyrie Irving: ‘He can be the best player in the world’

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Kyrie Irving has committed to staying with Boston next summer when he can — and will — opt out of his contract and become a free agent. Right now, it’s like all of Boston is singing kumbaya: Irving loves Boston, the Celtics fans love Irving, Brad Stevens is praising Irving and he is returning the praise to his coach, Irving loves his teammates and his teammates love him.

But nobody had praise — and raised expectations — like Celtics president/GM Danny Ainge. Check out his comments to Joe Varden of The Athletic.

“I see a more mature Kyrie than even just last year. I think he feels more comfortable with everything in his life and the organization and where he is as a player…

“I think he’s anxious to be a leader, not anxious to just lead the team in scoring or be the most efficient player on our team, but I think he really wants to hold the guys to a high standard…

“I don’t know to what extent, but it has accelerated our timeline to the point where Kyrie is one of those players that can be the best player in the gym on any given day against any given team,” Ainge said. “He can be the best player in the world. He can add a lot of juice to your team and his teammates a lot of confidence.”

That’s setting the bar high for Irving, but setting the bar high is what this Celtics’ season is about. (For Irving, getting near that bar starts with him staying healthy for a full season.)

Expectations in Boston are Finals or bust — this team made the Eastern Conference Finals last season without Irving or Gordon Hayward, both out injured. Their young core players, particularly Jayson Tatum and Jaylen Brown, stepped up, Al Horford reminded everyone he is good at everything, and Boston kept surprising teams. Until they ran into LeBron James. However, he’s gone, Boston’s healthy, and they are the team to beat.

Celtics spoiled with depth. Too much?

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The Celtics return eight players who started during a playoff run that ended one game from the NBA Finals.

Boston also has two other players who might be better than those eight.

Kyrie Irving and Gordon Hayward will join Al Horford, Jayson Tatum, Terry Rozier, Jaylen Brown, Aron Baynes, Marcus Smart, Marcus Morris and Semi Ojeleye on the court this season. It’s an embarrassment of riches.

It’s also a stacked roster that exists at the same time as the Warriors, arguably the greatest team of all-time. So, Boston will still have major external barriers.

But the Celtics’ initial challenges will come from within as they try to balance all this talent. How will they manage?

Coach Brad Stevens is already sending his message: This is a special team capable of winning big if everyone sacrifices, and these opportunities don’t come around often. Stevens is an excellent communicator and has repeatedly gotten his players to embrace their roles. The expectation should be a continuation this year.

Perhaps no player has set a better tone than Rozier. Starting for an injured Irving in last year’s playoffs, Rozier wowed. He looked every bit like the starting point guard he hopes to become. But Rozier has consistently said he has no problem returning to the bench behind Irving.

This is also a contract year for Rozier (unless he signs an extension before the season). He has been stuck on a relatively low-paying rookie-scale deal and this will be his chance to earn set-for-life money.

If he can buy in, why can’t everyone else?

There are plenty of Celtics with big reputations considering their standing in the league. Boston put a league-high seven players in ESPN’s ranking of the NBA’s top 100 players. Per #NBArank, the Celtics have the NBA’s second-best third-best player (Horford), second-best fourth-best player (Brown), best fifth-best player (Hayward), best sixth-best player (Smart) and best seventh-best player (Rozier).

Here’s how the top 100 is represented by rank within each team – teams’ best players in the first column, teams second-best players in the second column, etc.:

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Quibble with the exact rankings. But the overall picture is clear: The Celtics are loaded.

And Boston has three extra first-round picks, likely including the Kings’ this season (top-one protected). The Celtics aren’t just in great shape now. They’re poised for a long run of success.

But personal agendas sometimes derail teams headed for greatness. Rozier and Morris are playing for new contracts, though at least they might be the only ones in the rotation. Irving is practically guaranteed the max next summer no matter how he performs this year. Horford and Baynes have relatively lucrative player options to fall back on. There are fewer potential pitfalls here than usual.

The best thing Boston can do to keep everyone on track is win. Many players across the league feel as if their role isn’t large enough. The ones on winning teams usually keep quiet (enough) about it. How can they complain when the overall plan is working? They typically understand it won’t go over well. It’s players on underwhelming teams who grumble more.

Essentially, these things snowball.

And the Celtics have been snowballing toward greatness for a while. They could hit a snag, but the avalanche is building and coming for the rest of the league.

Rumor: Celtics, Jamal Crawford have mutual interest

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The Boston Celtics have 15 guaranteed contracts on the roster, the most they can carry into the season. They also have pretty good depth on the wing: Jaylen Brown and Gordon Hayward will start at the 2/3 spots, with Marcus Smart and Semi Ojeleye behind them. The Celtics are not really looking to add a wing. Plus, Crawford was frustrated with his role last season in Minnesota getting almost 21 minutes a night and having the ball in his hands a lot, that’s not necessarily a fit with Boston’s selfless style.

But a good rumor never lets facts get in the way — like Jamal Crawford to the Celtics.

The Athletic’s Jared Weiss, talking on the Celtics Beat podcast with Adam Kaufman, said there is “mutual interest” between the sides (hat tip to NBC Sports Boston).

“There is mutual interest between the Celtics and Crawford. That I do know. The Celtics didn’t make an offer to him. He’s been kind of waiting for the right situation to materialize. That’s why he’s holding out to training camp, basically. He wants to be in a position to win a championship. He wants to sign on with one of these title teams.” 

Is Crawford really a fit for the Celtics? While he is 38, and his skills and his efficiency have slipped in recent years, he still averaged 10.3 points per game last season in Minnesota. While he is a three-time Sixth Man of the Year (most recently in 2016), he is more of a volume scorer who creates his own shots and is not much of a defender. Is that what Brad Stevens and the Celtics would want? Crawford certainly can still carry a team for a five-minute stretch off the bench some nights, but is it a good fit in Boston?

Depends on how the Celtics’ bench is doing. My guess is we will be well into training camp if not into the season before a team comes calling for Crawford — but a good team will come calling. He has value, he can still get buckets. Maybe the Celtics will need that, but another team could have that need first.

Jayson Tatum on Celtics having so many ball handlers: “We’re gonna find a way to make it work”

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Kyrie Irving has arguably the best handles in the league and is an elite shot creator who should have the ball in his hands a lot. Gordon Hayward is a player who can create quality shots for himself and others with the ball in his hands. Maybe he was just a rookie, but Jayson Tatum showed last season (and especially in the playoffs) he can handle the rock and score. When Irving went down injured Terry Rozier stepped up and showed if you put the ball in his hands he can run a team and get buckets.

NBA rules permit only one ball on the court at a time.

Is this going to be a problem? Tatum told Jake Fischer of Sports Illustrated it’s not.

“We’re all professionals. We’re gonna find a way to make it work. At the end of the day, we all want to win, so everybody has to sacrifice when you want to be a part of something special. It’s not gonna be any different for us.”

There will be some adjustment — the Celtics are not used to Hayward in the rotation — but Stevens has built a culture where guys understand that to win takes sacrifice. It takes putting the team ahead of your numbers. The locker room leaders like Al Horford get that. Irving gets it — he got his ring playing next to LeBron James, which can require massive sacrifice at times. The stars lead by example, the coach helps set that culture, and then everyone buys in.

In Boston, everyone has bought in. Which is why they are the favorites in the East. Jaylen Brown took that one more step and said the Celtics are going to the Finals, you good with that boast Tatum?

“Man, I’m always going to back up my teammates. I’m not saying that we’re gonna be able to skip steps. We gotta take it one game at a time. I just hope that we stay healthy this year and see what we can do.”