TORONTO — There were some moments that stood out Wednesday night at Air Canada Centre for the rebuilding Celtics, junctures that would define the early impressions of this refurbished roster and the neophyte coach with the bright ideas.
One was early in the third quarter, when Jonas Valanciunas dunked at the 8:18 mark to give the Raptors their third 16-point lead of the quarter, and a Boston collapse was not only expected but practically assumed.
The Celtics rallied with a 27-11 run to even the game at the end of the quarter. And when that quarter concluded, and Brad Stevens realized his first fourth quarter of his NBA coaching career would be suspenseful, require critical decisions, and player execution to claim victory, he calmly walked over to the official scorer’s table, sifted through a tray of chewing gum and popped a stick into his mouth and walked back to the bench.
The Celtics lost, 93-87, to the upstart Raptors, a frustrating game if you are judging these Celtics on last year’s standards. But this game was rather encouraging because the only way the Celtics are going to compete favorably this season is if they play harder than their opponents, and they did against the laid-back Raptors.
One Celtic who was rather surly about the defeat was former Brooklyn Net Kris Humphries, who scored 8 points with 9 rebounds and 2 blocked shots in just 21 minutes. He expected more, considering the opposition.
“It’s the kind of team and the kind of game we’ve got to figure out a way to win,” Humphries said. “I know it’s the first game of the year but I feel a little disappointed. A team like that is always going to let you back in the game. Everyone’s seen the Raptors play for the last few years. They have a lot of talent but we can always get back in that game, so it was just about trying to finish that off and turn the corner.”
There were some ghastly numbers, such as 19 offensive rebounds allowed, 22 turnovers and 28 second-chance points. Because they have one legitimate center, Vitor Faverani, whose best friend is definitely not the defensive rebound (two in 27 minutes), the Celtics are going to get hammered on the glass.
Obviously there are glaring weaknesses and roster holes, but the Celtics are going to win some games if they continue to play with passion. Jeff Green scored 25 points in 37 minutes, which will be expected. Avery Bradley struggled, missing 9 of his 13 shots with four turnovers before fouling out and Gerald Wallace refused to shoot for the first 20 minutes before finishing a bizarre 3-point, 3-rebound, 4-steal, 5-turnover performance in 40 minutes.
But for those who expected Toronto to coast, the Celtics to carry out their tanking plan to fruition, and for this roster to look uninspired, those things never occurred. So there is reason for encouragement.
“I walk out of here certainly disappointed because you’re in a close game and you have a chance, but I walk out of here with some positives to build on,” Stevens said. “We’re going to get better at handling the ball, rebounding. We’re going to get better at keeping guys in front of us and we fought back and competed. I’m not a guy that takes a lot of positives in losses usually, but I am able to take away some things tonight that we got better at.”
It’s a long-term plan, not a short-term fix. The Celtics’ goal is to show progress, methodical process, for Stevens to take several weeks to determine playing rotations, the best players during certain situations and to stress to his guys to play with maximum effort.
The Raptors had unquestionably more pure talent than the Celtics but Humphries made a wonderful point: Even the most talented teams will slide mentally, they will allow opponents to stay close or even sneak wins.
That’s how the Celtics are going to have to win. They are dramatically lacking in talent in comparison with the Eastern Conference elite, but they will win more than expected if they play the right way and continue to improve.
Rajon Rondo watched from the sideline, still recovering from a torn right anterior cruciate ligament, playing assistant coach and watching impatiently. He has watched Stevens closely over the past month as the two have formed a bond.
He sat in the locker room impressed with his coach and encouraged with his team.
“He’s still taking his time [learning], he knows what he’s doing,” Rondo said of Stevens. “I think Danny [Ainge] knew what he was doing when he brought Brad in. So he’s fine. He’s laid-back. He wants to win and he has the personality for this job. I’m never too down [about a loss], never too high, never too low. We have a lot of room for improvement but we’ll get there.”
Expectations are considerably lower. The Celtics brand has been completely reshaped and the perception that they are destined to lay down are inaccurate.
This season could be enjoyable for a different reason than the past six of the Big Three era. To watch the development of the Celtics’ young core, to watch them outhustle opponents as the underdog, and to take the next step toward respectability are going to have to be enough for now.