After a tumultuous offseason that included the sudden and shocking suspension of their head coach, the Celtics enjoyed a harmonious and drama-free training camp under interim Joe Mazzulla. Yet, the uncertainty of how the departure of Ime Udoka and the leadership of Mazzulla will affect the players will continue into the regular season.
Those intrigued about how the defending Eastern Conference champions will react should receive a bit more insight Tuesday night when they open the NBA season with the Philadelphia 76ers at TD Garden.
It’s a chance for the entire NBA audience to catch a team that claims it has learned from its Finals defeat and has strengthened its weaknesses.
The most intriguing player is Jayson Tatum, last seen being locked down by Andrew Wiggins in the NBA Finals and unable to uplift the Celtics in the stretch of games. Tatum enters his sixth NBA season fully healthy and ready to elevate into a consistent top-five player.
“I think we had a really successful training camp,” Tatum said. “Obviously we wish we would have had [Danilo Gallinari and Robert Williams]. With the group that we have, I love the way that we played in those four preseason games. I loved the way we practiced and I think everybody’s gelling well together.”
When asked if he’s a different player than he was in June, Tatum said: “Yeah, I think I have more experience. Learning from that deep playoff run, going to the Finals, there’s some benefit to that. I feel like I approached coming into this year differently than I did last season.”
The 76ers also have something to prove in what is a pivotal season for former Celtics coach Doc Rivers.
The club welcomed back an engaged and in-shape James Harden. Joel Embiid is healthy and Tyrese Maxey is an emerging point guard. Philadelphia added strongman P.J. Tucker, menacing rebounder Montrezl Harrell and shooting guard De’Anthony Melton.
But the 76ers’ success — and perhaps whether Rivers stays in Philadelphia long term — is the health and motivation of the 33-year-old Harden, acquired from the Nets in February but an overall disappointment.
He battled health and conditioning issues and an advancing age. Still, he signed a two-year contract extension and reported to camp in shape. The Sixers will need a vintage Harden if they are to compete for a top seed in the Eastern Conference.
Embiid has always presented a problem with the Celtics, especially his ability to get to the free throw line.
“He’s a great player,” Mazzulla said of Embiid. “We’ve had great matchups over the years. He can score at all three levels. He can shoot. He can draw fouls and he’s obviously great on the elbows and in the post. We know he’s going to make tough shots. We know he’s going to make plays and so it’s just a matter of if we minimize those as best we can. We know how good he is and what he’s capable of.”
Now add the fact the Celtics will be without Williams, it could be a big scoring night for Embiid. Mazzulla would not reveal his starting lineup for but it’s likely to have Al Horford at center and Derrick White at shooting guard with Tatum and power forward, Jaylen Brown at small forward, and Marcus Smart at the point.
Luke Kornet and Blake Griffin will receive center minutes with Malcolm Brogdon, Sam Hauser, and Grant Williams playing key roles off the bench. The Celtics struggled with rebounding in the preseason and that has become a point of emphasis as the regular season begins.
The team believes the addition of Brogdon will stabilize the offense in the fourth quarter, while Tatum and Brown will be surrounded with better shooting — Hauser, an improved Grant Williams, and Brogdon — will open driving lanes and make scoring at the basket easier.
The offense flourished during the preseason. Brown has taken advantage of the open space on the floor by attacking the basket or draining 3-pointers. White looked reinvigorated after a rough stretch last season after being acquired from the Spurs.
“I feel good about our group,” Horford said. “We’ve had a real good training camp. I’m really happy with how everything went. It’s obviously a big game, they’re a really good team but more than anything, I’m happy to play a game that matters, regular season, let’s get this going.
“Opening night at the Garden, honoring Bill Russell, there’s a lot of things that are good. It’s good to be a Celtic right now.”
There has been added emphasis on starting this season fast after beginning last season 18-21. The schedule is challenging with Philadelphia, Miami, and Chicago in the first week, but the Celtics appear eager to prove they have moved from the Udoka situation and are focused on winning the East again.
“It’s like the first day of school, got my outfit laid out,” Tatum joked. “I’m just excited. We’ve got a good feel for each other. We’ve been playing together for a while now.
“Are we using [last year] as fuel? Of course. We lost. There’s no secret. We talk about it every day. It’s just a relief to get out there and play basketball and have a goal in mind. We’re trying to get to a championship but it starts [Tuesday].”