It doesn’t matter who their coach is. It doesn’t matter what the NBA trade rumor mill spit out all summer about one of their stars. It doesn’t matter whom they’re playing. The Celtics are a team on a mission with laser-guided motivation.
That was clear from their season-opening 126-117 victory over the Philadelphia 76ers Tuesday night at TD Garden. This one felt different, and not just because the Celtics paid tribute to the late Bill Russell and played in the dominant doyen’s honor. The Celtics have unfinished business after breaking through to the Finals. It’s Banner 18 or bust.
Led by their basketball bookends, Jayson Tatum and Jaylen Brown, who scored 35 points apiece, Boston came out determined and with the hunger of a team that won’t be denied. The Celtics resemble the 2004 Red Sox, with one season bleeding into another, disappointment blending with determination and redemption. Those ‘04 Red Sox lived up to the hype and the expectations. The Celtics could do the same if they maintain this mien.
The last time the Celtics took to the parquet for an NBA game that counted was Game 6 of the 2022 NBA Finals on June 16. They watched as the Golden State Warriors won a championship on their hallowed Boston hardwood and celebrated in their building. On this night, 3,095 miles to the west, the Warriors received their championship rings. Still stung by that defeat, the Celtics rang the bell of a fellow contender, the 76ers. Message sent.
The tone was set by Tatum and Brown, who combined to shoot 27 of 44 from the field, and became the first pair of teammates to each score 35 points in a season opener since Wilt Chamberlain and Jerry West did it for the Los Angeles Lakers in 1969.
“I think what’s understood and doesn’t have to be explained in a sense is we both are extremely competitive,” said Brown. “We’re both trying to make our franchise better, make our teammates better, and chasing a championship.
“So we both had bad summers after losing to the Warriors on our home floor and had to answer for it all summer long. I can speak for him, and I can speak for myself, it was tough. So going into this season, we kept all of that in mind.”
No. 7′s eloquent pregame address on the life and times of No. 6 was one of the highlights of the night and a prelude to the Celtics attitude. They played with Russellesque ferocity, defiance, and determination, evidenced in part by Tatum’s team-high 12 boards.
This was a high-level basketball contest against old friend Doc Rivers’s team. The 76ers are one of the Celtics’ chief competitors in the East. They have a legit MVP-caliber centerpiece in Joel Embiid, a rejuvenated James Harden, and a budding star in Tyrese Maxey.
The game was tied at 63 at the half before the Celtics put the pedal to the parquet and pulled away in the third quarter, opening up a 13-point lead. Playing without injured center Robert Williams for the time being (get used to that sentence), the Celtics shook off foul trouble and used their speed to outscore the Sixers, 24-2, in fast-break points.
The other message delivered by the Celtics was that no outside distraction or coaching change is going to push them off course. The Ime Udoka imbroglio was sudden, sad, and jolting for the franchise. Just like that, a coach who guided them to the Finals was exiled under nebulous circumstances.
For the third straight season, the Green sported a different coach on opening night.
This time it was 34-year-old Rhode Island native Joe Mazzulla, tapped by the Celtics to step into the breach as interim coach following the year-long suspension of Udoka for an improper relationship with a team employee.
The NBA’s youngest head coach, Mazzulla didn’t look out of place. He earned a celebratory water bath and the game ball in the locker room.
But Rick Pitino could’ve been coaching the Celtics on this night, and it wouldn’t have made a difference. That’s how dedicated and dialed in the Celtics look.
Not always self-starters the last few seasons, these Celtics are self-motivated. Mazzulla doesn’t have to do much in the way of motivational tactics. The Finals loss fuels that fire for him.
“Everybody here was super locked in for this game,” said Grant Williams, who came off the bench to score 15 points on 5-for-5 shooting.
Williams and new No. 3 offensive option Malcolm Brogdon, who scored 10 points in his first 10 minutes and finished with 16 points and 4 assists, helped the Celtics bench outscore Philly’s, 34-11.
One area Mazzulla in which is going to seek improvement is on-court comportment. The Celtics were in midseason form when it came to caterwauling and complaining about the officiating. They also picked up a pair of technical fouls, including one on Tatum, who had gotten ejected from the final preseason game.
Tatum’s tech came with some redemption when the phantom foul call Embiid earned was overturned upon video review.
Boston’s other technical came when Marcus Smart (who else?) got into a dustup with Embiid while trying to pry a rebound loose from the big man and grabbed Embiid’s leg after the two became entangled. The Celtics believed Embiid tried to hurt Smart by jerking his locked arm, and Brown jumped to his fellow Sports Illustrated cover model’s defense.
If Mazzulla can succeed where both Brad Stevens and Udoka couldn’t in getting the Celtics to stop fixating on the officiating and getting goaded by opponents, he should win Coach of the Year. He also should get a Nobel Prize.
Good luck there, Mr. Mazzulla. Enjoy win No. 1.
“We’re happy for him,” said Brown. “That was his first win as a head coach. In the light of Bill Russell, here on our home floor, it was special.”
The Celtics hope that opening night was the start of something special — of a redemption tour de force.
They’re determined to be a special team and make this a special season.