Over the past week and a half there have been questions about how the Celtics would be affected by coach Ime Udoka’s one-year suspension for violations of team policies. The players insisted that they would not let the situation distract them, and on Sunday they took the court for the first time this preseason and offered some evidence of their focus.
Although parts of the game were quite clunky and certainly resembled the preseason, the Celtics did roll to a 134-93 win over the Hornets at TD Garden anyway, and it looked like they were glad to be back.
The game also marked the NBA head coaching debut of Joe Mazzulla, who shrugged off the significance when he was asked how it felt.
“I felt like I was coaching a great team that wanted to win,” Mazzulla said.
Jaylen Brown scored 24 points to lead Boston, which shot 57.1 percent from the field, hit 22 3-pointers, and registered assists on 41 of 48 baskets, helping it overcome 25 turnovers.
Observations from the game:
▪ Brown started things off with a simple one-handed dunk, added a tough mid-range pull-up, a 3-pointer, and an acrobatic alley-oop off a pass from Jayson Tatum. But it wasn’t all good, as Brown collected four fouls in his first 15 minutes. He and Jayson Tatum combined for nine turnovers in 45 total minutes.
“We have a lot of work to do,” Brown said. “We have to take care of the ball better, we’ve got to get more connected on offense and defense, rebound a lot better.”
▪ Malcolm Brogdon was Boston’s first sub, checking in midway through the first quarter. He has stressed that he is ready to embrace his sixth-man role after spending several years as a starter, and Mazzulla probably wanted to start getting him in rhythm there. In the first half, Brogdon pushed the pace and was focused on being a distributor. His combination of size and speed pose problems for defenses, and his court vision was on display. He had nine assists in 24 minutes.
“There’s definitely a freedom in my mind, not having to be the guy that’s scoring all the points,” Brogdon said. “I don’t have the best defender on me when I’m in the game most of the time now playing on this team, so it really opens me up to get downhill to create for everybody. I think that’s what we saw tonight.”
▪ With 7:17 left in the first quarter, Hornets center Mason Plumlee reached out and grabbed Brown to stop a fast break, and the call was an intentional “take” foul, giving Boston a free throw and possession. These fouls are ugly and rob fans of exciting fast breaks, so this was a needed rule change. But more referee discussions and free throws aren’t great, either. The hope, of course, is that the rule will become a deterrent rather than a frequent punishment.
▪ It’s always a mistake to read deeply into preseason substitution patterns, but it was notable that forward Noah Vonleh, who is on a non-guaranteed contract and just hoping to make the final roster, was the second sub. He started the second half in place of Derrick White. It’s certainly possible that this was essentially Vonleh’s audition day, and against the Raptors on Wednesday another camp player will get a shot in that spot. Vonleh had 7 points and 9 rebounds in 13 minutes.
“I like the way he just fit right in,” Mazzulla said. “I think the most important thing is [his] defense stayed the same regardless of who’s on the floor, and Noah was in decent position for the majority of the game. He communicated and he played physical.”
▪ There will be some funky lineup combinations early in the season, especially while centers Robert Williams and Luke Kornet are out. Here’s one from the first half: Tatum, Marcus Smart, Sam Hauser, White, and Brogdon.
▪ The Celtics did not flinch when forward Danilo Gallinari was lost for the year because of a torn ACL, in large part because the front office was confident that Hauser could fill some of the void with his sharpshooting. The second-year forward offered a glimpse on Sunday, drilling 4 of 5 3-pointers and scoring 14 points. Hauser’s quick release and high arcing shot are a good combination.
“Definitely good to get back out there and getting used to playing with these guys and playing off of them,” Hauser said. “And obviously making some shots helps, so, good confidence booster.”
▪ Mfiondu Kabengele parlayed a strong summer league showing into a two-way contract in July, and it did not take long for him to endear himself to the Boston faithful Sunday. When Charlotte’s James Bouknight nonchalantly reached down to pick up a loose ball, the 6-foot-9-inch, 250-pound Kabengele sensed opportunity and pounced on it, drawing a roar from the crowd.
“See ball, get ball,” Kabengele said. “That’s all I was thinking. But I appreciate the fans. It was dope. I liked it.”
Soon after, he muscled in a three-point play before drilling a 3-pointer. Even though he’s on a two-way deal, he’ll be in the mix for a regular roster spot.
▪ Blake Griffin, who has agreed to a one-year deal with the Celtics, was in the building Sunday. But he did not sit on Boston’s bench because his contract has not been signed yet. He’s expected to practice with the team on Monday.
▪ It was the Celtics’ first game at TD Garden since their Game 6 loss to the Warriors in the NBA Finals, and early in the first half, stats from that game were still glowing on monitors along press row before eventually being shifted to the game that was being played.