Celtics forward Jaylen Brown is out for the rest of the preseason after testing positive for COVID-19 Friday. His place in the rotation is secure, of course, but his absence over these 10 days will create new opportunities for others to either audition for playing time or even show they deserve a spot on the roster.
On Saturday night, third-year players Romeo Langford and Grant Williams stepped in and had productive nights, helping the Celtics to a 113-111 exhibition win over the Raptors. Langford started and scored 13 points, and Williams was Boston’s first sub and scored 12. Jayson Tatum had 20 points, 9 rebounds and 7 assists in 28 minutes.
After the game had turned into a battle of backups, the Celtics held an 8-point lead with 1:25 left before the Raptors charged back and tied the score at 109 on a Sam Dekker 3-pointer with 43.9 seconds to play. But the Celtics regained the lead with two Juancho Hernangomez free throws with 7.4 seconds left, and after a timeout, Toronto’s Isaac Bonga missed a 3-pointer from the left arc and Dalano Banton’s tip-in attempt was off.
“Nobody wants overtime [in the preseason],” Celtics coach Ime Udoka said, smiling, “so I’m glad we were able to finish it out.”
Observations from the game:
▪ Al Horford started alongside Robert Williams after coming off the bench in Monday’s game against the Magic. In recent years, Boston’s two-big lineups have had some inconsistent results, but Horford’s versatility as a passer and shooter should make the pairing with Williams more dangerous. Horford was asked after the game if starting matters to him, and he did not shy away from answering.
“For me as a competitor, I want to be in the position that I’m playing when it matters most,” he said. “I do like to start. That’s just the reality of me as a competitor and me trying to feel like I can contribute and be a great asset. To answer your question, yeah.”
Horford continues to look spry and refreshed after sitting out most of last season with the Thunder. On one second-quarter play he held his ground defending Fred VanVleet at the top of the key before blocking his 3-point attempt and beating everyone else up court to finish the play with a slam. Horford was also 4 for 4 on 3-pointers, having good results with his new, quicker release.
▪ Langford had some promising moments. He attacked from the corners twice early, and even though one drive ended with a turnover the Celtics had to be pleased with his aggressiveness. Moments later he drilled an open 3-pointer. Midway through the second quarter he had a strong drive and hung in the air for a moment before a solid finish, and he added another 3-pointer. Langford scored 10 points before halftime. He reached double figures in scoring just twice during his first two injury-filled seasons.
“I feel good,” Langford said. “Body feels good. Mind is good. Just happy that I finally got a chance to do a training camp, a healthy summer, and it just feels good to be in a little rhythm and being able to work out in a practice with the guys leading into the regular season, and just building off from here.”
▪ The Celtics were really moving the ball in the first quarter, often starting the offense in the post before spraying passes around the perimeter for open 3-pointers. Seven of Boston’s first nine shots attempts came from beyond the arc, and they were mostly unguarded. The Celtics had assists on their first five baskets and finished the game with 29 assists on 38 field goals.
“It’s really great, just seeing how that ball is popping, kicking it out to shooters, being able to read the double teams a little bit better, being able to see the help a little better,” Grant Williams said. “We have a lot of willing guys, a lot of willing passers and a lot of guys who can knock down a lot of open shots.”
▪ While the passing and unselfishness were both good, the offense certainly had its flaws, too. The Celtics had 24 turnovers, resulting in 37 Raptors points. Things were especially ugly at the end of the second quarter, when the Raptors erupted for 26 points over the final 4:33 to take a 59-57 lead to the break.
“We did get in a hurry at times, especially in that second quarter when we let them back in,” Udoka said. “As much as we’re emphasizing passing the ball, we still want to take care of it and that’s what really got them back in the game.”
Preseason results don’t matter much, but with regular rotation players on the floor the Celtics were outscored in both games this week, playing at home against teams that are not expected to make the playoffs.
▪ Tatum missed his first four shots and was held without a field goal before hitting a jumper with five minutes left in the first half. He looked over to the bench afterward in an it’s-about-time kind of way. But Tatum, who drew extra attention from the Raptors with Brown out, impacted the offense in other ways, with six first-half assists. Udoka has stressed the importance of Tatum elevating his game as a playmaker this year. This was one small step.
“He’s doing a good job of feeling it out, knowing when to be aggressive and go score, and when to pass it,” Horford said. “It’s a fine balance, but I feel like that’s one of the areas he’s going to take a big step this season.”
▪ Brown will miss the rest of the preseason after testing positive for COVID-19 Friday. He will be quarantined for 10 days, which would put him in position to return to practice Oct. 18, two days before Boston’s season-opener against the Knicks at Madison Square Garden.