Before the Celtics faced the Magic on Monday night, coach Ime Udoka sat in a small room in the bowels of TD Garden and said it was the most excited he had ever been for a preseason game. Even though the matchup did not count, it was Udoka’s first as a head coach, and it ended with a lively crowd celebrating Boston’s 98-97 comeback win.
Jaylen Brown had 25 points in 26 minutes to lead Boston and Jayson Tatum added 18 points and 9 rebounds. The Celtics made just 35 percent of their shots in the game and committed eight turnovers during an ugly first quarter. The final score of a preseason game is not very relevant, but the Celtics did trail, 76-67, when their stars checked out late in the third quarter.
“Obviously, a pretty ugly win overall,” Udoka said. “On the offensive end you shoot 35 percent, I don’t know how many wins you’re gonna get, but we made them late when they counted. Defensively I thought we were solid, had some slippage in areas.”
Boston made a spirited run in the final minutes, with a lineup consisting of its regular rotation players going against Orlando’s third- and fourth stringers. The Magic led, 89-79, with 5:45 left when Boston charged back behind Aaron Nesmith, who hit a pair of 3-pointers and converted inside to tie the score at 89.
Boston trailed, 97-95, when Romeo Langford got the ball at the left arc after a scramble and calmly drilled the go-ahead 3-pointer. Orlando’s Ignas Brazdekis missed a long 3-pointer at the buzzer.
“Kudos to the young guys who came in at the end, played hard and dug it out,” Udoka said.
Observations from the game:
▪ It was Brown’s first game since his season was cut short last year due to left wrist surgery. He played with a light wrap on the wrist but it certainly did not appear to hinder him. The All-Star forward exploded for 16 points in less than nine minutes in the opening quarter. He hit three 3-pointers and added a strong drive and finish that was followed by a flex for the crowd. Brown said he’s been dealing with some mild wrist soreness, so this performance was encouraging.
“[My wrist] held up pretty good,” he said. “At times it bothered me a little bit. But I’m moving in the right direction. I’m still like 80-85 percent, but as the season goes on and I’m staying on top of my routine, it’s going to get better. So today was a good test.”
▪ The Celtics started Tatum, Brown, Robert Williams, Marcus Smart, and forward Juancho Hernangomez. Udoka has hinted, unsurprisingly, that those first four players are locked into starting slots. He plans to use the preseason to experiment with the final slot, and will most likely use some kind of rotation throughout the year depending on the matchups. But Hernangomez got the first look.
“I think one of the best things we’ve got is the versatility,” Hernangomez said. “We’ve got a lot of players who can play different positions, and all of the positions are interchangeable, so everybody has to be ready to do more things, try to focus on versatility.”
▪ Udoka did caution not to read into his general substitution patterns in the preseason. Nevertheless, it’s worth noting his 10-man rotation from the first half. The starters were eventually joined by Josh Richardson, Al Horford, Dennis Schröder, Payton Pritchard, and Aaron Nesmith. Enes Kanter, Grant Williams, and Langford were the notable absences. Williams checked in midway through the third quarter. This will be one of the deeper teams the Celtics have had in recent years.
▪ The Celtics are excited about the potential of their perimeter defense this season. Everyone knows what Smart can do, but Richardson and Schröder are defensive upgrades from Kemba Walker and Evan Fournier. Schröder provided an example of his pestering approach in the second quarter when he hounded Magic guard Cole Anthony in the backcourt before swiping the ball away from him.
“He gets after it,” said Horford, Schröder’s former Hawks teammate. “He’s a veteran. He’s a vet point guard. He understands, he knows what to do and the places he needs to be. He’s just reading the game out there.”
▪ Horford said he was focused on speeding up the release on his 3-pointers this year. He was just 1 for 4 in the first half, but he did seem to be getting the ball off quickly.
▪ It was a bit of an odd night for Robert Williams. On offense the athletic big man mostly fired up mid-range jump-shots with no success. He was 0 for 7 from the field.
“I think he may have settled for a few when he should have rolled a little bit more,” Udoka said. “They ran a pretty deep drop coverage, and so he was stopping in the mid-lane.”
Udoka said Celtics coaches have been working with Williams on his touch shots and floaters, but on Monday they wanted to see him roll to the rim a bit more to be a lob threat.
“He’s he showed he can make some [jumpers],” Udoka said, “but we know where his bread is buttered and him getting to the basket and causing that tension down there. So he can mix it sometimes, but we obviously want him to roll and be able to be a threat down there more often.”
▪ For those wondering why Langford switched his jersey number from 45 to 9 this year.
“I just thought No. 45 was a little big, made me look a little chunky,” Langford said. “No. 9 is a little bit smaller and kind of got a little bit of weight off me, helped me jump a little higher.”