ORLANDO — The Celtics were here last year, coming off a dominating Game 1 performance in the Eastern Conference semifinals, changing the tone of the series with their masterful opening statement.
Suddenly the team crumbled the moment the Milwaukee Bucks responded with adjustments, and it never won another game. While that series may have had negative short-term ramifications for the organization — the departures of several veterans and an embarrassing blemish on Brad Stevens’s résumé — it may have proven as a long-term benefit for a club wanting to take that next major step.
Against a team that has beaten them repeatedly the past few years and who entered this series as the prohibitive favorites, the Celtics turned in another masterpiece in the opening game. Their 112-94 win over the Toronto Raptors at The Field House was a perfect way to start what should be a long, grueling series.
It was Boston’s second dominant win over Toronto in the bubble, and the Celtics seemed to have a found a strategy that’s effective against the usually flawless Raptors.
What’s more, this may be the best the Celtics have played in seven years under Stevens. While two of his past teams reached the Eastern Conference Finals, one club was led by the dazzling one-man scoring show of Isaiah Thomas, while the other was a bunch of upstarts that made an improbable run without Kyrie Irving and Gordon Hayward.
This current club seems to have learned from last year’s breakdown against the Bucks. First, Irving was replaced by Kemba Walker, who brings a more positive energy and impact. Second, the Celtics seemed to have rid themselves of the lackadaisical lapses that plagued them last season.
The Celtics ran out to a 31-13 lead and never allowed the Raptors to get closer than 9 points. The defense was stifling, with the Celtics’ double-teaming spark-plug shooting guard Fred VanVleet the moment he got the ball into the front court. He missed 13 of his 16 shots.
Boston was content to allow All-Star Pascal Siakam to become Toronto’s primary scorer with one-on-one coverage, and he struggled under that pressure. Unlike last year’s team, this Celtics bunch appears connected and cohesive; rooting for each other, rushing in bunches to help teammates up from the floor, and consoling one another on mistakes.
Something is different about this team, one that resonates confidence that they can be successful in this series. The Raptors were vulnerable. They were coming off four games against the porous Brooklyn defense, including Game 4, when they scored 150 points. So to face such a tenacious defense served as a shocker to the Raptors’ system.
“Last year is behind is, this is just different all around,” Jayson Tatum said. “We know it’s not going to be easy. They’re the defending champs for a reason. We’re not going to be perfect. We just need to follow the game plan and play with purpose. Just play hard and compete. That’s what we did.”
What was refreshing about the Celtics’ opening barrage against the Raptors is Tatum, the team’s co-leading scorer, scored just 2 of the team’s 39 first-quarter points. The attack was balanced. The Celtics’ roles are defined and understood. There’s no one chirping about lack of playing time or opportunity. These guys genuinely like each other.
Last year, Terry Rozier wanted more minutes. Irving wanted out. Al Horford wasn’t far behind Irving while Tatum and Jaylen Brown were still trying to find their footing as leaders. None of those issues exist this season.
“We need to go back and look at how we can play better,” a never-satisfied Stevens said. “But guys had a good mindset and they kept guarding no matter what happened.”
There was concern about how the Celtics would respond without the injured Hayward, who badly sprained his right ankle two weeks ago and will be out at least another two weeks. The Celtics are 4-0 without Hayward, with Marcus Smart giving the club a difficult and unique defensive wrinkle, especially against Toronto’s backcourt.
Stevens has always had creative game plans against playoff opponents. But last year, the Celtics succumbed when the Bucks simply did what they do better and Boston began pressing, uncertain of its ability to defeat such a well-executing team four times. The Celtics had just one great game in them in that series.
It seems like this Boston team can play much better than Game 1. Brown was 6-for-18 shooting and battled foul trouble. Daniel Theis grabbed a career playoff-best 15 rebounds but missed three open layups and committed four turnovers.
Speaking of turnovers, the Celtics committed 23, an alarming number in a playoff game. And still, they never trailed, and the defense forced the Raptors to miss 30 of their 40 3-point attempts.
It was an impressive Game 1 opening statement, one that will convince pundits the Celtics are serious NBA Finals contenders. But the key is to realize that nothing has been done. They are only 25 percent toward their goal in this series.
Last year’s team could never regain that Game 1 swagger and folded. This team promises it’s different.
“I believe in each and every one of those guys in that locker room,” Tatum said. “We spend so much time together down here and putting in work every day. We come prepared. We know how good Toronto is and how tough they are. We can’t think about [this win] no more. We gotta get ready for the next one.”