ORLANDO — During a timeout in the Celtics’ preseason game against the Magic on Wednesday, Marcus Smart and Jayson Tatum stood near at the edge of the court and chatted. Smart tapped Tatum’s chest. Tatum laughed from behind his mask.
Then the game resumed, and the players went back to the bench, where they’d spent the entire night.
Both players sat out to rest, along with guards Josh Richardson and Dennis Schroder. Al Horford and Jaylen Brown, meanwhile, remained back in Boston after testing positive for COVID-19. While the absences erased a chance for the top players to develop chemistry, they did create opportunities elsewhere, as others made their pitches to be in the regular rotation, or just on the final roster.
Second-year wing Aaron Nesmith had 23 points in just 26 minutes, but the Magic escaped with a 103-102 win when former Rhode Island star Jeff Dowtin drilled a 16-foot fadeaway with 0.2 seconds left. All three of the Celtics’ preseason games have come down to the final moments, and this was the first one they lost.
“We had a lot of different lineups out there tonight and I loved what I saw overall, especially from the young guys stepping up in different roles,” coach Ime Udoka said. “As I said two games ago, we have a flair for the dramatic and want to play in these close games. Credit to them, they hit a tough shot, but overall we played hard, played together, very aggressive defensively and shared the ball. They did what we asked of them.”
Guard Payton Pritchard scored 10 points in the first half before injuring his nose in the second quarter. Udoka said Pritchard’s nose is likely broken, and he will fly back to Boston Thursday and miss Friday’s preseason finale against the Heat.
Theo Pinson gave the Celtics a 102-101 lead with a pair of free throws with 42.7 seconds left. Boston got the ball back after a Robin Lopez miss, but Garrison Mathews’s 3-pointer from the left corner was an airball.
The Magic elected not to call timeout, and the Celtics defended the scattered play quite well, forcing Dowtin into a tough fadeaway with time running down, but he drained it. Boston could only win on a tip-in, and after a timeout the sideline inbounds pass was batted away.
Observations from the game:
▪ Robert Williams didn’t have much success from the perimeter in Boston’s preseason opener last week, and afterward Udoka made it clear that the Celtics prefer to see him operate closer to the rim, where he can usually dunk on opponents’ heads. But this is preseason, and Williams stepped out and drilled a pair of mid-range jumpers in the first half on Wednesday.
Williams was Boston’s only regular starter who played in the game, but he clearly didn’t think he was too big for it. He showed good hustle several times, like when he chased down a steal in the backcourt in the second quarter and then went tumbling after a loose ball in the third.
▪ The Celtics are still evaluating their options for their final two roster spots, and in the first quarter three hopefuls were on the court at once: Jabari Parker, Mathews and Ryan Arcidiacono. Parker, who played 10 games for the Celtics last season after signing in April, was the standout. In the first half he scored 10 points on 4-of-5 shooting and also came up with a nice steal.
“Jabari is obviously a veteran who has been around for a long time,” Udoka said. “I say this a lot with guys like Al, Josh, Dennis, whoever it may be, we know what we have with Jabari. He’s a sparkplug that comes off the bench, plays multiple positions, and defends multiple positions. A guy that we feel on a night like tonight with guys sitting out can provide instant offense and he did that.”
▪ Pritchard often looked like the best player on the floor in the first half, when he had 10 points, 4 rebounds and 2 assists before being injured. He’s looked poised and focused since summer league and appears in line to keep a substantial role in Udoka’s rotation at the start of this year. Udoka said the Celtics know Pritchard is a dangerous shooter, but the preseason has given him a chance to show his ability to run a team and defend opposing point guards.
“We want him to learn and learn the position,” Udoka said, “and we always preach to him about making plays not just for yourself, but for others.”
▪ With two minutes left in the third quarter, Nesmith caught the ball at the top of the key, drove to his right and then stopped suddenly before faking a pass that left two defenders wondering where the ball was headed. But it never left Nesmith’s hands, as he turned and hit a tough fadeaway jumper.
The second-year wing’s game has evolved quickly and he has shown that he is more than a spot-up shooter. His offensive game appeared refined on Wednesday.
“The game is definitely easier to read, and it’s slowing down,” Nesmith said, “and it will continue to slow down in the coming years and games.”
▪ Center Bruno Fernando could also be in the mix for one of the final two slots, but it probably wasn’t the best sign for him that he sat out the entire first half despite all of the notable absences. Pinson, who is on a training camp deal, played in the second quarter but Fernando, whose contract is guaranteed this season, did not. Fernando checked in for the first time midway through the third and had a nice blocked shot in the fourth.
▪ With about six seconds left on the shot clock in the second quarter, the Celtics started a “3, 2, 1″ chant as Magic guard Gary Harris dribbled near their bench. He launched a shot that missed, and Boston’s players seemed to enjoy it.