The Celtics’ first three games in Orlando had ignited reason for at least some mild concern. They lost twice, and coughed up a 24-point lead before escaping with a win over Portland. But the Nets, who brought a patchwork roster to this NBA restart and had a losing record even when they were whole, figured to offer a good chance for a confidence-building reset Wednesday.
The Celtics were engaged and eager at the start and never let up, as they rolled to a 149-115 win. Six players reached double figures in scoring, led by Jaylen Brown, who had 21. Robert Williams came off the bench and had a career-high 18 points on 7-of-7 shooting, along with 5 rebounds and 3 blocks.
Observations from the game:
▪ With the Celtics playing their second game in as many nights, point guard Kemba Walker sat out to rest his left knee. Marcus Smart started in his place, and that was probably just what Boston needed after its recent sluggish defensive performances. Smart helped set the tone right away, and the Celtics’ intensity and effort levels were noticeably high. For stretches, it looked much more like the top-five defense that this team displayed for much of this season.
“I thought the energy overall was good for our whole team,” coach Brad Stevens said. “Thought we came out and played the right way.”
▪ Jayson Tatum went to the bench midway through the first quarter after collecting his second foul. He came back at the 2:14 mark, and just 44 seconds later was called for his third foul when he contested a Joe Harris fast-break layup attempt. Tatum acted stunned by the call, but players always act stunned by calls. Still, his reaction was enough to convince Stevens to challenge the call even though the replay showed a clear foul by Tatum. Stevens tends to let his players play through foul trouble, but this was the third time in Orlando that it turned out poorly. Brown and Smart had similar experiences. Tatum sat for the rest of the half.
▪ There was a silver lining to this absence, though, especially since Boston was facing an undermanned and overmatched Brooklyn team. With Tatum sitting, rookie wing Romeo Langford took advantage of a lengthy opportunity.
He did not fill up the stat sheet, but he was impactful, particularly on defense in the first half. He checked in and immediately smothered Caris LeVert, who dribbled the ball off his foot. He scrapped to keep an offensive rebound alive, leading to a foul and free throws. He had a nice and well-timed strip of Garrett Temple. Langford finished with 4 points and 3 rebounds, and the Celtics outscored the Nets by 27 points during his 26 minutes on the floor. The rookie has consistently shown that he is reliable, and there will be a point in the playoffs when his number is called.
“He’s a good worker,” Stevens said. “He’s one of our more solid defenders. That’s going to give him a chance to play, especially with the way we’ve played the first couple of weeks.”
▪ Williams also got a substantial opportunity. The second-year big man, who had played just 13 seconds in Orlando prior to Wednesday, had a rocky start. He committed a pair of quick fouls and nearly turned the ball over twice.
“Starting off early, it was a lot of swipes when I should have been going straight up, contesting shots,” Williams said. “Just getting out there, getting a feel for it, getting back to my defensive repertoire I’ve been working on.”
But he appeared more comfortable as the game went along. He was fouled as he completed one dunk and soared in for a pair of nice alley-oops courtesy of Smart. In some matchups, Williams will obviously be the better choice for the Celtics than Enes Kanter. It will just come down to Stevens’s trust in him, and this game should help.
“He was a threat at the rim the whole time, all night,” Stevens said.
▪ Big leads disappear quickly, as the Celtics were reminded when their 24-point edge over the Blazers vanished Sunday. Often, it’s because teams simply ease up a bit when there’s such a cushy advantage. The Celtics led, 71-52, at halftime on Wednesday, but they started the third quarter with the same energy that they had in the first, and that had to be encouraging for Stevens. By the end of the third quarter, the lead had been extended to 29 points.
▪ Props to Tatum and Brown for both attempting field-goal-percentage-crushing, end-of-quarter 3-point heaves.
▪ The NBA players have been in a confined bubble for several weeks, they are undergoing daily COVID-19 testing, and there have been no positive results. The league has done well to create a safe and sterile environment. But if you’ve seen any of the press conferences, or seen inactive players and some assistant coaches on the bench, you’ve noticed that everyone is wearing a mask. Even if it’s not necessary, it’s good messaging and another good way to use this platform.
▪ The Celtics knelt for the national anthem for the third game in a row. When I looked up from my computer I briefly thought that one player was standing. Then I realized that it was just the 7-foot-5 Tacko Fall on one knee.