When Grant Williams reached his locker after playing 24 rugged minutes in the Celtics’ 126-117 season-opening win over the 76ers on Tuesday night he saw two bottles of water. It was logical to assume they were there for him to drink. So he chugged one of them.
Then he realized the bottles had actually been placed at each cubby for a more celebratory reason.
Interim coach Joe Mazzulla, who less than one month ago became an NBA coach for the first time following the one-year suspension of Ime Udoka, had just won the first game of his career.
Mazzulla walked to the center of the locker room and started a brief speech.
“Nothing better than that ‘Let’s go, Celtics’ chant at the end of the game, right?” Mazzulla said. “And nothing better than closing the game by playing together … Nothing gets in the way of winning.”
Marcus Smart started the party by adding to that thought.
“Especially that first one!” he yelled, as the locker room turned into a happy spray-ground.
The last time the Celtics were on this court for a meaningful game, they watched as the Warriors celebrated an NBA title on it. But this night had a more fulfilling feel from the start.
It started when the organization honored legendary center Bill Russell, who died July 31 at the age of 88, with a lengthy pregame ceremony as his widow, Jeannine, and daughter, Karen, watched from courtside seats.
Then the game began, and despite some obvious differences, so much remained familiar. The rowdy crowd, the dominance of Jayson Tatum and Jaylen Brown, and another thorough win that was reminiscent of the team’s second-half surge a year ago.
Tatum and Brown scored 35 points apiece to lead the Celtics, who broke a halftime tie by outscoring the 76ers, 35-25, in the third quarter. Malcolm Brogdon had 16 points in his Celtics debut, and Williams added 15.
The Celtics made 56.1 percent of their shots and held a 24-2 edge in fast-break points, providing evidence of their preseason vow to run at every opportunity.
The Celtics, who entered this season as the favorites to win the NBA title despite the recent tumult, including injuries to Danilo Gallinari and Robert Williams, provided a glimpse of what they could be capable of.
“We’ve matured in ways and we continue to mature in ways that we have to, we need to, that we all are benefitting from,” Smart said. “So we have a really good team. We’re really good players. We have a really good coaching staff. So for us to come out here and do what we did tonight, kind of set the tone, was big.”
His postgame bath aside, Mazzulla, whose only head coaching experience prior to this season had come with Division 2 Fairmont State, mostly shrugged off the significance of his first NBA win. He called it a proud moment, and said the ceremony honoring Russell made it more special.
But his players were eager to gush about him afterward, praising his focus and temperament, and his desire to do something big during this season in which so much is still expected.
“He wouldn’t have taken any of the credit for tonight,” Tatum said. “But the thing I like about Joe and admire about him is he’s very honest that he doesn’t know everything and he wants us to help him out as much as we help him out.”
James Harden led the 76ers with 35 points and Joel Embiid added 26 points and 15 rebounds. But in the first quarter it appeared that both players could leave an even bigger mark on this game. Harden, whose offseason training and diet changes created plenty of buzz and optimism in Philadelphia, showed flashes that the buzz was warranted.
He poured in 16 points in the opening quarter and was fouled on 3-pointers three times, infuriating Celtics fans and leading to some visible frustration from the Celtics themselves.
The 76ers quickly flipped a 7-point deficit into an 8-point lead, sapping the Garden of some of its early energy. But the Celtics tied the score at halftime thanks to a 14-point quarter by Brown. And in the third, Tatum took over.
He was noticeably aggressive throughout the game, getting to the rim, seeking contact, and not settling for long jumpers. He attempted nine free throws and made 11 of 13 2-point attempts, and poured in 17 points in the third quarter alone.
“A lot has to do with just health and how I feel, being able to get the proper amount of rest coming into the season and kind of go through the stages of proper offseason,” Tatum said. “I felt as good as I possibly can going into training camp.”