Less than three months after their season ended in the conference finals against the Heat, the Celtics returned to the court Tuesday and played a preseason game against the 76ers that felt both odd and familiar.
There were no fans, and the seats in Philadelphia were covered by tarps to make the vacancies less glaring. But the Orlando bubble last summer made these eerie settings seem normal.
On the court, franchise mainstays such as Jayson Tatum, Jaylen Brown and Marcus Smart were joined by new faces. Rookie guard Payton Pritchard (16 points, 4 rebounds) lived up to his reputation as a hard-playing pest. Veteran Jeff Teague (18 points) showed what he will bring as he fills in for injured guard Kemba Walker.
The final result was a 108-99 76ers win, but that’s about as meaningful as the fake crowd noise that was pumped into the arena.
The Celtics were sloppy, and that’s understandable given the accelerated nature of this preseason. Still, there weren’t many indicators that they are prepared to stomp into the regular season just yet.
“The best thing about the preseason is no matter win, lose or draw you’ve always got a ton of film to work off of,” coach Brad Stevens said. “And we’ll do that. It was great to get a chance to get back in there, play, see guys impact the game in different ways. And everything is information right now. So we’ll take that.”
Observations from the game:
▪ The Celtics used 10 players in the first half, but first-round pick Aaron Nesmith was not among them. Stevens generally warns against reading into preseason substitution patterns. Sometimes he likes to give a bench player an extended opportunity in one game before rotating that chance in the next one.
Still, it was a bit surprising, especially considering there are just two preseason games and the Celtics were missing three rotation players Tuesday. Nesmith, the 14th overall pick of last month’s draft, is one of the best shooters on the team and could be a candidate to provide some needed scoring punch.
He checked in with 7:07 left in the third quarter and hit a 3-pointer about a minute later before missing his next two. He added a pair of hustle plays, soaring in for a put-back as he was fouled and then recovering after being beat by 76ers guard Tyrese Maxey and swatting his shot out of bounds.
▪ Pritchard played in the first half and had several promising moments. He hit a quick baseline jumper once he checked in, and later led a fast break and fed Robert Williams for a pretty alley-oop. In the second half he drilled a nice catch-and-shoot 3-pointer from the right arc. If he can be an energizer who plays about 10 minutes off the bench each night, it would be a boost for Boston. He plays hard and seems to remain under control despite his pace.
“I was just trying to get in the flow of things,” Pritchard said. “Obviously, it’s a little bit of a different game than college. This is my first time, so a little bit of jitters.”
▪ Daniel Theis missed the game because of back soreness. He said he thinks it was just a result of a workout and that he should be back to full strength within a few days. As expected, Tristan Thompson (hamstring), Walker (knee) and Romeo Langford (wrist) also sat out.
▪ Teague, a career 35.6 percent 3-point shooter, was 4 for 4 from beyond the arc. Although he did not register a rebound, assist or steal, he generally looked smooth and comfortable on offense, which will be quite important while Walker is out.
“He got us several baskets that were just easy,” Stevens said. “Pushing the ball up the floor, [it] doesn’t look like he’s breaking a sweat. … Really in the first 30 minutes, I felt like that was the only time the ball was moving the way it needs to, when he was in the game.”
▪ Smart took two charges in the first half of a preseason game, including one against the 76ers massive center, Joel Embiid. So, nothing unusual here, really.
“I think there is a contagiousness to that that’s really important,” Stevens said. “He’s got to be himself.”
▪ It was an ugly first half for Brown. The fifth-year wing was just 1 for 11 with three turnovers, although he did snag eight rebounds. This is hardly reason for concern, but with Walker out and Gordon Hayward gone, the Celtics’ hopes to stay near the top of the East will hinge on Brown complementing Tatum as a true rising star.
▪ Javonte Green joined Tatum, Brown, Smart, and Robert Williams in the starting lineup. Green played less than 500 minutes as a 26-year-old rookie last season. His contract does not become fully guaranteed until February, so the Celtics could use the next few weeks as an evaluation period before deciding if they’d like to use that final roster spot on someone else. The springy wing had a few nice first-half moments, though. He started the game by hitting a 3-pointer from the right arc, then soared in for a one-handed alley-oop on a fast-break after a Brown steal.
▪ In the first half the Celtics looked like, well, a team that was missing several key pieces and had just started practicing less than two weeks ago. They committed 12 turnovers and shot just 35.7 percent from the field.
“I think you saw tonight that we have a little adjustment period that we need,” Teague said. “I think obviously we can be a lot better, but for the first game I think we did a little better in the second half being cohesive and being kind of a tight unit, but the first half was a little struggle for us. We couldn’t really find our footing. But I think as we get another one under our belt we’ll be OK.”