The Celtics are still a major work in progress. It’s going to take weeks for them to digest new coach Ime Udoka’s new system, to learn their new teammates and to get re-acclimated to playing in front of raucous crowds.
After preseason game No. 2, the Celtics are showing signs of being a team that will play hard nightly, move the ball with vigor, and defend with pride. That wasn’t always the case last season.
Saturday featured a thrilling (for the preseason) 113-111 win over the Toronto Raptors at TD Garden, in a game that displayed the improvement from Romeo Langford, a reminder Al Horford can shoot the three, and Jayson Tatum is capable of being a distributor.
Preseason is the platform where players want to show their summer improvements, and a good portion of this roster is fighting for minutes and even slots in the starting lineup. There are four starting spots certain with Marcus Smart, Jaylen Brown, Tatum, and Robert Williams.
Veteran Horford wants to start alongside Williams and he even said so after the game.
“For me as a competitor, I want to be in the position that I’m playing when it matters most,” he said. “But I do like to start. That’s just the reality. Me as a competitor. I feel like I can be a contributor and be a great asset and to answer your question, yeah (I want to start).”
Horford contributed 16 points and three rebounds in 24 minutes and he looks like the trade to Boston has reinvigorated his mind and body. Horford is 35 years old, five years older than when he signed with the Celtics as a maximum free agent in 2016.
Celtics president of basketball operations Brad Stevens sacrificed a first-round pick to reacquire Horford — and dump the salary of Kemba Walker — and the move could pay major dividends. Horford may not be the player he was five years ago but athletically he’s close.
On a Celtics second-quarter sequence, Horford blocked a Fred VanVleet jumper, then sprinted down the floor and received a lead pass from Tatum for a soaring dunk. He didn’t look like an aging player. And he also swished all four of his 3-point attempts.
When Horford was here a few years ago, he was an improving 3-point shooter. It was a skill set he picked up in Atlanta, realizing that power forwards and centers needed to stretch the floor and be perimeter threats to earn minutes.
He was a 38.2 percent 3-pointer shooter during his time in Boston. And last season in his 28 games with Oklahoma City, he attempted a career-high 5.4 per game and made nearly 37 percent. That means he has to draw defenders away from the paint or be allowed to shoot an open shot.
Either way, it benefits the Celtics if Horford continues to be a perimeter threat. And if that’s the case, Udoka is likely comfortable starting him at power forward beside Williams. Juancho Hernangomez got the start at power forward in the preseason opener, and he’s another option in that position.
Horford, however, is likely the better choice because of his defense and veteran experience. Now does Udoka want to run Horford out there 35 minutes per game at age 35? No. But as long as Horford is playing with fresh legs – he was held out the second half of last season with the Thunder – then he should be the best option.
“I think I am a much better shooter (than his last stint),” he said. “When I was here (before), I was shooting (threes) and it was something that was kind of new. My 3-point shooting came in different ways than it comes now. I’ve really made sure that I’ve worked on shooting off the pass quickly, not only off the pick-and-roll. I do feel that I’m a much better shooter than I was then but that’s the way the league has gone. It has forced me to work on that even more.”
The Celtics have 10 days before their season opener against the New York Knicks and just two preseason games left, so Udoka is going to have to make some decisions over the next few days on rotations and roles.
“We want to continue to grow with these last two preseason games,” he said. “We’ll start to mix in some different coverages. Growth, that’s what we’ve been preaching for the young guys, for the veterans and the guys that in the new group together.”
Brown is expected to be ready for the season opener after he was found positive for COVID-19 and is now in quarantine. Dennis Schröder didn’t play because of knee soreness but he’s likely to come off the bench as a backup to Smart and the focal point of the second unit.
Josh Richardson is also likely a reserve as Udoka wants that group to carry defensive toughness. The Celtics are rounding into shape for the season. Take nothing away from these preseason games besides the quest for consistency. Horford has proven a steady presence already in his return, and he should get the chance to start.