TAMPA, Fla. — The Celtics played in front of fans for the first time since the COVID-19 pandemic shuttered the NBA last season. Even though they were on the road, it did not feel that way, and the green-clad supporters scattered through Amalie Arena reveled in Boston’s comfortable 126-114 win.
Jayson Tatum made 11 of 19 shots and 13 of 13 free throws to lead the Celtics with 40 points and rookie Payton Pritchard had 23 points and 8 assists. The Celtics made 51.7 percent of their 3-pointers and won despite the absences of point guards Marcus Smart (thumb) and Jeff Teague (ankle).
Boston trailed by as many as 13 points in the first quarter before blowing the game open with a punishing 21-point second-quarter surge by Tatum that ignited Boston’s 38-14 run.
The Raptors started to claw back in the third quarter before Tatum flicked them away. His 3-pointer with 6:15 left stretched Boston’s lead to 82-62, and despite a late Toronto flurry, it was never really in danger again.
Observations from the game:
▪ Boston’s defense hasn’t been great this year, and it seemed fair to reason that by removing its best defender, Smart, from the equation, the result would be even more grisly. Then the Raptors started the game by making 6 of 7 3-pointers, most of them with plenty of space to operate. But the problem did not linger. A second-quarter lineup featuring Tatum and Grant Williams, who were on the floor for all of it, helped limit Toronto to 5-of-24 shooting and forced four turnovers.
“We had a bunch of guys out and just played the way we should play, and that’s to the standard,” coach Brad Stevens said. “We let go of that at the end of the game, but I thought that for the most part, guys all did a good job, all the way down the line.”
▪ Stevens shifted his lineup at the start of the third quarter, putting Semi Ojeleye in for Daniel Theis. Ojeleye has had some promising stretches recently and Boston has struggled with its two-big lineup featuring Theis and Tristan Thompson. Ojeleye’s 3-point shooting has provided a lift, and he rewarded Stevens by drilling one early in the third after Toronto had sliced its 16-point deficit to 11. He finished with 12 points and 8 rebounds.
“I think his jump shot from three is really good, and he’s gotten better at it over the years,” Stevens said, “and a couple of his drives where he gets to the rim and has a chance to finish or go to the rim and/or dump off or kick out, he’s gotten a lot better, too.”
The slow first-quarter start and Theis’s third-quarter benching might put the two-big starting lineup’s future in doubt. On the other hand, the Celtics have won two games in a row, and Stevens usually doesn’t disturb winning.
▪ Tatum finished 1 point shy of his career high of 41. He rattled in a 20-footer with 10:21 left and went to the bench 30 seconds later, with Boston holding a 26-point lead. His night was supposed to be over, but with second- and third-stringers from both sides on the court, the Raptors went on an 11-0 run that forced Stevens to put Tatum and Jaylen Brown back in with 2:33 left and Toronto within 121-111. But Tatum didn’t score again, so he remained stuck at 40.
“Disappointing?” he said. “Nah, I’m going to get there soon enough.”
▪ With Smart and Teague both out, second-year point guard Tremont Waters started at point guard for the Celtics. Waters has been used sparingly this season, but Stevens probably did not want to disrupt Pritchard’s strong rhythm helping lead the second unit. Waters didn’t have much of an impact in the first half, but Pritchard certainly did. He remains so calm and poised and seems to make the right play just about every time.
“Honestly, each and every night is going to be a different night, but I’m going to find little ways that can be different offensively, whatever it is to help my team that night,” Pritchard said.
In the first half Pritchard patiently carved into the paint several times and had little trouble finishing once he got there. He’s creative and crafty. During one third-quarter stretch he hit a deep three from the top of the key and then completed a smooth drive-and-dish to Grant Williams. He’s the first Boston rookie to tally at least 23 points and eight assists in a game since Antoine Walker did so in 1997.
“We’re going to ask him to do a lot right now,” Stevens said. “Fair or unfair to him, he’s going to have to be consistent for us to have a chance to be a good team.”
▪ The absences also led to an opportunity for rookie wing Aaron Nesmith, the 14th overall pick of the draft. Nesmith’s short stints continue to underwhelm. During one four-minute stretch in the fourth quarter he missed a 3-pointer by a wide margin and committed three fouls. He finished the game scoreless in just over 10 minutes.
▪ Tatum, who took 13 free throws on Monday night, entered the night with just 20 attempts all season.
▪ There were fans at this game, and it was sort of weird. The Celtics had not played a true game in front of a crowd since the NBA shutdown in March due to COVID-19. The Raptors are not located anywhere near Tampa, of course, and their tradition and history do not come close to matching the Celtics’, so it was no surprise that this turned into a pseudo Celtics home game. There were even some pretty loud “We want Tacko” chants throughout the second half. But the Celtics’ inability to hold their large edge kept Tacko Fall on the bench.
▪ Grant Williams had a nice bounce-back moment in the second quarter. Moments after having one of his 3-pointers swatted past the Raptors’ bench, he caught a pass at the left arc and drilled the shot. He did not play on Sunday in Detroit and had a nice return overall on Monday. In the opening minute of the fourth, Williams met OG Anunoby at the rim for a powerful block and then rolled in a 3-pointer at the other end. He finished with 14 points and six rebounds.
“Sometimes I get in my own head in focusing too much on the role that I’m in,” Williams said. “That’s something that coming into this year I told myself I wasn’t going to do. And tonight was just a part of that, just being able to play freely, being a guy that you can rely on in any situation.”
▪ The Raptors lost big men Serge Ibaka and Marc Gasol this offseason and signed former Celtics center Aron Baynes. It’s not working out so far, and Baynes looks uncomfortable in Toronto’s offense. He didn’t have a true training camp to get acclimated, of course, but Ibaka and Gasol had become pillars and their absences are showing. Alex Len started the second half in place of Baynes.
One-win Toronto’s problems go beyond the big Australian, though. This team is not connected and is making uncharacteristically sloppy plays, like the rare inbounds violation that was followed by a lane violation soon after.