What is evident with the Celtics beginning the season next Wednesday likely missing two starters is that the remaining players are going to have to be very good to withstand the difficult early schedule.
Several teams in the Eastern Conference have ramped up their rosters and the Celtics are hardly the favorites to come out of the group. They have enough talent to make a long playoff run, but they have already been beset with health issues — point guard Kemba Walker and center Tristan Thompson — and a shorter training camp that makes it difficult to be adequately prepared for the early onslaught.
Tuesday’s 108-99 preseason-opening loss to the rival Philadelphia 76ers was a case of the Celtics just trying to figure things out against their first opponent. Preseason is the time where you chalk up the poor numbers to it just being an exhibition and attribute the good numbers to forecasting success in the regular season.
So ignore the combined 5-for-24 shooting from Jaylen Brown and Jayson Tatum and be encouraged by the 18 points in 19 minutes from Jeff Teague. Brown and Tatum are each going to score 20 per night. They will be fine. Teague’s production was encouraging because the Celtics are going to need him to flourish in Walker’s absence.
Marcus Smart is likely to start on opening night against the Milwaukee Bucks, and perhaps Teague will join Smart in the backcourt because coach Brad Stevens doesn’t have many options until Walker comes back.
Teague becomes a critical component in the Celtics’ arsenal because of his skill set and experience. He drained all four of his 3-pointers against Philadelphia. He dived into the paint. He looked comfortable on the floor. The Celtics need bench scoring, especially from the perimeter, and Teague is capable of scoring in bunches, perhaps not like his vintage days in Atlanta, but he has something left. That was encouraging.
“The biggest thing is we’re down a few bodies so we’re gonna need our best players to play well and we’re gonna need everybody else to do their roles as well as they can,” Stevens said. “I thought Jeff Teague was excellent tonight. He got into the paint all night, did a lot of good things.”
The Celtics are banking Teague is a better fit than Brad Wanamaker, who had his moments in two years in Boston but lacked the consistency and breakout games that Teague has produced. What the Celtics lacked in the bubble is a veteran bench presence. President of basketball operations Danny Ainge stuck strictly with the young guys, especially in the backcourt. Teague can add an element the team lacked and he showed flashes of that Tuesday.
But it’s going to take time for Teague to get accustomed to playing with his new teammates and conforming to a new system. But Tuesday was a promising start for him.
“I think you seen [Tuesday] that we have a little adjustment period that we need,” he said. “Obviously we can be a lot better. We did a little better in the second half being cohesive, being a tight unit.”
There is no reason to panic yet. It’s the preseason opener. But the margin of error for this team — as it’s currently constructed without Walker and Thompson — is small.
The 76ers, with James Harden trade rumors hovering, are trying to move forward after a forgettable 2019-20 season that ended when they were swept in the bubble by the Celtics. They added Danny Green, Seth Curry, and Dwight Howard to join Joel Embiid and Ben Simmons. Under new coach Doc Rivers, the 76ers looked more adjusted than the Celtics.
The shorter offseason and training camp is going to have different effects on different teams, and the Celtics are banking on a being a much better team in May than in December. Teague is trying to adjust to a new role and more responsibility after splitting last season with Minnesota and Atlanta, two teams that were headed for the draft lottery.
This is perhaps his best chance to win a championship. At age 32, he has been to one conference final with a 60-win Hawks team six years ago. He accepted the NBA minimum to sign with the Celtics for a chance to win. Opportunities for team success sometimes outweigh the chance for a lucrative paycheck.
And with Walker out, Teague is going to be no ordinary backup point guard. He will get his chance to have definitive influence on how this team fares.
“It’s just having the opportunity to play; I’m just blessed to be in this position to keep playing basketball,” he said. “I’m here for whatever the opportunity is. When Kemba gets back, hopefully I’ll continue to play a key part of the team, play a good role. But, as he’s out, I think we have a lot of guys who have to step up. We’re gonna have to depend on some guys to make some plays and be good and we have enough talent to do that.”