The Celtics and rising expectations

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BOSTON -- Teams love to use low win projections as motivation. It's a chance to rally around a familiar, "Nobody believes in us!" mentality. Heck, it's the reason that, when first asked about expectations surrounding this year's Boston Celtics squad, Evan Turner quickly responded, "Didn't they have a report saying we were 19th or something like that?"

Nineteenth out of 30 teams? No, no. Just the opposite, Evan. There's an awful lot of rosy projections for this season's Celtics squad. Las Vegas predicts the Celtics over .500 while setting a win total at 42.5. FiveThirtyEight's new CARMELO projection system pegged Boston for 48 wins. ESPN's Real Plus/Minus stat projected a staggering 51 wins.

"That'd be dope," Turner said when told of the 51-win projection. "I think we could have [won more games] last year if we didn't give away a lot of games. We still gotta play. [Projections don't] really matter at the end of the day. You still have to play and hopefully everybody stays healthy and we take care of it."

These young Celtics, for the first time in the Brad Stevens era, are trying to learn how to handle the burden of expectations. Boston, after the infusion of Isaiah Thomas at February's trade deadline, finished the 2014-15 season by winning 24 of its final 36 regular-season games and surging to the seventh seed in the Eastern Conference with a 40-42 record overall. Bringing back much of that core and adding some veteran talent in Amir Johnson and David Lee this summer, the Celtics are almost universally expected to take another step forward this season.

Number crunchers at Nylon Calculus pegged Boston at 49 wins. Sports Illustrated did a win share projection that put Boston at 47 wins. By the time the 2015-16 season actually tips, someone will have the Celtics at 60 wins.

So what changes when a team that won 25 games two years ago is projected to potentially double that total?

"It shouldn't change anything really," said veteran Lee, who knows plenty about rapidly rising expectations from his time in Golden State. "I've been on teams where there's a lot expected and teams you don't expect anything. Nobody expected [Golden State] to win a title last year. Two years previous, they gave us a zero percent chance of making the playoffs and we made the second round, so none of it matters. It's about going out and there's going to be teams that overachieve and underachieve every year and the goal is to be one of those teams that overachieves and gets the most out of what they're capable of. And let's hope, through hard work this year, we can be one of those teams."

Jae Crowder said he doesn't worry about computer-projected numbers, only the numbers that Boston generates on the court. Boston improved to 5-1 on the preseason with a 99-85 win over the New York Knicks at TD Garden on Thursday night.

"I pay attention to winning and losing. That's all I pay attention to," Crowder said. "If you're winning, you're winning -- it doesn't matter what the numbers are."

Stevens acknowledged expectations have grown for his team this season, but he's so focused on the daily progression, that he ignores the big-picture projections.

"Obviously a much different level, but the expectations that we had every year, as far as [inside the organization], were pretty high," Stevens said. "The expectations that we had on the inside were higher because it was much more subjective in doing the right thing every day and progressing every day. So I'm not focused on results-oriented. I'm more focused on, again, that process and that progress. And we're going to stick to it. That's been good to us, as far as creating a good environment for growth and also getting a little bit better. And that's where we'll stay.

"We're going to have some bad days; we're going to have to respond. We're going to have some good days; we're going to have to play better. So, long year. Not worried about [outside expectations]."

Celtics president of basketball operations Danny Ainge was asked Thursday about whether he thought these Celtics could meet ESPN's 51-win projection.

"I don't know. Our team, we don't have a lot of room for error. I feel like we're a team that can beat anybody on any given night, and so consistency is going to be a big issue," Ainge said during his weekly radio interview with 98.5 the Sports Hub. "Having our players buy into the depth that is the strength of our team is not an easy task for Brad, and I think that there's a lot of questions to still be answered about our team. But I'm really excited about them, and really excited about our training camp and our practices and our preparation. I can't wait for the season to start."

Avery Bradley, the longest-tenured member of the Celtics, has seen both sides of the projection coin while being part of both the end of Boston's Big Three era and this recent rebuilding process. Maybe the most optimistic player on the team -- he wondered out loud on media day why Boston couldn't compete for a title this season -- even Bradley acknowledges things are different this season.

"I think [expectations] change a lot. It's almost like we have a target on our back," Bradley said. "Obviously, a lot of teams know that we're a very young team, but experienced at the same time. And we play hard every single night."

Bradley said, ultimately, he doesn't pay attention to win projections. Like Crowder, he's more worried about how the team is competing on the court.

"That's one of the questions I asked Amir when he first got on our team: What did [the Raptors] used to think about the Celtics?" Bradley said. "And he said, 'Every single night, you were going to go out there and play hard.' That made me smile because that just lets us know that a lot of teams respect us around the NBA and they know every single night we're going to play as hard as we can."