When Celtics legend Paul Pierce was introduced prior to Boston’s home opener against the Raptors on Friday, the fans responded with a playoff-level ovation that made TD Garden shake. It was the first regular season game here with a packed house since March 2020, and the crowd was ready to rumble.
But the buzz and excitement did not last. By the end of the third quarter, as the Raptors surged to the rim for one uncontested basket after another, boos rained down and the good vibes were gone.
The Celtics tried to get one more jolt out of Pierce when they showed him on the Jumbotron before the start of the fourth quarter. The roars returned, but once again they were fleeting, as Toronto ultimately finished off its 115-83 win without any trouble.
There were more boos at the final buzzer, but they were more muted because there were also plenty of empty seats. It was certainly not the home debut that first-year coach Ime Udoka imagined.
He said that in the locker room afterward he told his players the game was about as ugly as it could have been. He told them they deserved the boos, and that they should use them as motivation. The lack of effort had irritated him, too.
“One thing I can’t stand as a coach is to get punked out there, and I felt they came out and punked us, outplayed us, played harder than us, all the things we talked about,” Udoka said. “You don’t want to overreact and panic. We’re going to stay together and keep our heads up.”
Wins and losses this early in the season are always magnified because there are no other wins and losses they can blend in with. Nevertheless, the Celtics are 0-2, with a pair of defeats against division rivals. They’ll now go on the road to face the Rockets and Hornets, hopeful that this minor blip doesn’t turn into something more. Most of all, Udoka said, the team simply has to show more heart.
Jayson Tatum led the Celtics with 18 points. Jaylen Brown, who erupted for a career-high 46 points in the opener against the Knicks on Wednesday, missed all seven of his 3-pointers and had 9 points.
Boston was outrebounded, 60-42, and the Raptors grabbed 21 offensive rebounds. The Celtics also committed 25 turnovers. After the game, Tatum was asked about the turnovers, and he asked how many his team had committed. When the number was relayed to him, he peered down at a stat sheet, almost to double check whether such a large number could be true.
“That’s a lot,” he said. “I mean, yeah, that’s unacceptable.”
Because of injuries and COVID-19-related absences, the Celtics were missing key pieces through much of the preseason. They have new players and a new system and are still trying to feel each other out. But chemistry and playing hard are not necessarily related.
The Raptors, meanwhile, gave the Celtics fits with their long, wiry, and athletic front line. Rookie Scottie Barnes, who essentially came to Toronto as a gift after its lost season playing in Tampa ended with them landing the No. 4 overall pick, had 25 points and 13 rebounds.
The Celtics trailed 51-47 at halftime, and that could have been either encouraging or discouraging, depending on the prism through which it was viewed. On one hand, Boston was still in the game despite surrendering 15 offensive rebounds and committing 12 turnovers. On the other, the Raptors had the lead despite making 35 percent of their shots and 18.5 percent of their 3-pointers.
The Celtics trailed by as many as 10 early in the third quarter, but with just over seven minutes left Al Horford blocked a shot and the Celtics rushed up court before Tatum fed Brown for an alley-oop that pulled Boston within 60-58.
The Garden crowd came alive and a continued surge seemed imminent. But the Raptors responded with a 24-6 run in which they mostly got whatever looks they wanted at the rim. When they missed, they often found ways to grab the ball and try again.
The Raptors had 19 offensive rebounds in their season opener and Udoka said Boston’s coaches stressed before the game that if the Celtics were not focused and aware “it could get ugly.” And then it did get ugly.
Horford acknowledged the rebounding issues were related to poor effort, but added that positioning played a role, too. The Celtics continue to switch on most screens, and sometimes that brings their big men out to the perimeter, where it’s tough to grab rebounds.
“If we’re going to play this way we have to find ways to rebound the ball better as a group,” he said. “So that happened tonight. It’s definitely unacceptable, and we need to be better.”
The Raptors outscored Boston, 55-25, after the Celtics pulled within 2 points midway through the third. There were positives to pull from the double-overtime loss to the Knicks, but this setback was certainly more grisly. Tatum, for one, is not ready to sound alarm bells just yet.
“I mean, it’s only been two games,” he said. “We’re not going to lose a championship or win it after two games. If we were 2-0, obviously we’d probably feel a little bit better about ourselves. But we got 80 games left so I think we’ll be all right.”