BOSTON -- There was a touch of defiance in his voice. Polite defiance, mind you, but Boston Celtics coach Brad Stevens still bristled a bit when it was suggested that some fans assume that the Celtics are content to tank the remainder of the 2014-15 season after the trade that delivered point guard Rajon Rondo to the Dallas Mavericks.
"First of all, this team is going to prepare every day to win games," Stevens said before Friday's tilt with the Minnesota Timberwolves. He acknowledged that some of the young players on his roster are going to have to step up and embrace leadership roles to replace what Rondo meant as captain, but Stevens made sure to stress that the goals of this team haven't changed because of one player's departure.
"I think the deal is, this is our team," he said. "This is how we're getting ready to win every single night. And we are building every single night to be the best that we can be. Tonight, tomorrow, the next night, and it's never going to stop. I'm excited about the guys in the locker room. Time will tell how we do, but I'm excited about the guys we have."
It's hard to gauge Boston's true potential after Game 1 of the post-Rondo era -- it was the basement-dwelling Minnesota Timberwolves on the opposite sideline after all -- but there's something to be said for the way Boston dominated the final six minutes of the game en route to a 114-98 triumph at TD Garden.
The Celtics have now won three straight games, matching their season high. While there are still 58 games left in the season, Boston shuffled into the No. 8 spot in the Eastern Conference playoff standings, at least for one night.
For a team that just traded away its best player, the Celtics were a pretty jovial bunch after Friday's game. While players admitted to being surprised -- and maybe a bit disappointed given Rondo's departed talents -- many were quick to point toward the opportunity that still exists for them. Like Stevens, they don't like the idea that they're supposed to just wave the white flag on the season.
As Boston's remaining young core were savoring Friday's victory, the team's three newest faces -- Jameer Nelson, Brandan Wright, and Jae Crowder -- convened at the interview podium to assess their new squad and hold up their new uniforms.
"On the plane ride up [to Boston] we were looking at the standings and the team is right here, goals are still attainable, playoffs are reachable," Wright said. "We just want to come in here and do the best we can. Do what we do best: Play hard, add an aspect to this team that hopefully pushes up in those standings."
Added Crowder: "That's what we talked about on the way up here. I still feel like we have a chance to make a push in the Eastern Conference, to make the playoffs and that's our goal. And that's how we're going to influence those guys to keep fighting, each and every day, to get better as a unit and see what happens."
The Celtics gave a glimpse Friday night of how things are likely to proceed from here. Boston put six players in double figures for scoring, led by Kelly Olynyk's 21 points off the bench. Boston's four-guard combo of Avery Bradley, Evan Turner, Marcus Smart and Phil Pressey combined for 17 assists. Bradley, in fact, tied a career high by handing out a team-high seven assists to go along with 14 points, 5 rebounds and 3 steals over 32 minutes.
"The [point guards] did well," Stevens said. "We've got a really good one sitting in the locker room, too, in Jameer Nelson. So we're going to have to continue to do that by committee. We're going to have to soar with what we do well, individually, and figure out how best to fit everything together. I do think this is going to become a team that you don't know exactly who's going to be [carrying the team]. You don't know exactly who's going to be the right fit, depending on the matchups and those type of things, and depending on how they're playing."
The Celtics embark on a two-game Florida road trip early next week with stops in Miami and Orlando, two teams hovering around Boston in the East standings. Maybe all these good feelings will turn sour if the team reverts to its struggles. It seems reasonable to expect that, without Rondo, this team will eventually endure more lumps while navigating a new phase of the rebuilding process.
But even Celtics president of basketball operations Danny Ainge railed against the idea that Boston should just expect to lose games because of Rondo's departure.
"I respect the opinion of fans that feel [the team is headed in reverse]," Ainge said. "Rajon was a terrific player. I enjoyed watching Rajon for the last nine years. So I respect that opinion, but time will tell. I think it's just that simple. None of us can predict what will happen. We'll see what these [new] players are and we'll see how they fit in with our system, and see how players getting more opportunities will play. Time will tell."
Does Ainge buy the notion that the Celtics are back at square one with their rebuild?
"I don't see it that way, no," he said. "Listen, I think we have a lot of cap space this summer, which the Celtics have never had. And we have a trade exception and we have draft picks and we have a lot of good young players that are attractive to other teams. Our perspective and our plan is always to develop through the draft, because that's what we can control, who we draft, and with our draft picks, and who we sign with free-agent dollars and so forth. As far as trades, we just have to be ready to have assets to trade and stay opportunistic to making decisions with our assets."
Boston is swimming in draft picks, including what's likely to be six first-round picks over the next two years (add in two more early second-round picks from Philadelphia in that mix, too). It's on Ainge to make the right steps from here with hopes of helping Boston get back to the playoffs and, further down the line, be a legitimate contender again.
Asked about the future of veteran forwards Jeff Green and Brandon Bass, two players who might attract interest from a legitimate contender, Ainge said: "Well, let's take a deep breath, enjoy the holidays. And let's let these [new] guys play, see how everybody fits in. But, of course, we're not actively pursuing anything at this minute. I anticipate that there will be a lot of calls coming in the next little bit."
Might the Celtics be buyers instead of sellers come February? OK, that's probably a bit far-fetched, but Boston players probably prefer that path to the one most everyone else assumed they'd be traveling down now.