MADRID — When the Celtics arrived in Europe last Saturday, they were unsure how the six-day excursion might unfold. They are a young team with several new parts in essential roles, and after just one week of practice they had traveled across an ocean to see how far they had come in a short time.
There were signs of cohesion off the court — David Lee, one newcomer, organized a team dinner in Milan. And in the gym, the intensity of the workouts was palpable. Coach Brad Stevens had said even pregame shootarounds — typically low-exertion sessions — would be treated differently, and they were.
“This whole trip has been like a mini-practice,” said point guard Isaiah Thomas. “Coach made guys tape up for shootaround, which is unheard of. But he wanted us to continue to lock in and continue to get better.”
Although it is difficult to measure progress or, for that matter, to identify flaws, over such a short period, the Celtics unanimously declared this trip a success after their 111-96 victory over Real Madrid on Thursday night.
“We made some technical errors, but we played pretty hard,” Stevens said. “We can build off that. We can get better from the film, but if we play with kind of a hard-hat mentality, that kind of energy and that kind of team-ness, then we’ll have a chance to be a good team. But that stuff is fragile. It’s not something you can talk about being. You have to do it.”
One thing everyone knew about the Celtics before this trip was that they were deep. And while that depth may eventually complicate the distribution of playing time, there also will be times when it is crucial. There will be injuries and there will be illnesses.
The Celtics were without three players at the Barclaycard Center on Thursday. Forward Evan Turner sat out his second consecutive game with a knee injury, forward Amir Johnson was sick and did not play, and forward Perry Jones traveled back to the US for a cousin’s funeral. Johnson and Turner, in particular, figure to be important cogs in the Celtics’ regular rotation.
Stevens said Johnson’s absence was noticeable defensively, but ultimately the others stepped in and stepped up.
“We legitimately go 10 or 12 deep with guys that have energy and can come off the bench and make plays and do things on both ends, and that’s going to be huge,” said Lee.
Avery Bradley led the Celtics with 17 points. In the two games in Europe, the guard went 7 for 8 from behind the 3-point line. Lee added 13 points, 11 rebounds, and 4 assists. And rookie Terry Rozier had a strong fourth quarter, finishing with 14 points and 4 assists in just 16 minutes.
The Celtics shot 42.7 percent from the floor and did not score as easily as they did in Tuesday’s win against Olimpia Milano. But that was due in large part to the competition. Real Madrid, with a roster dotted with former NBA players, is one of the better teams in Europe.
“They gave us some different looks than we see in the NBA,” Lee said. “A lot of switching and physical play.”
With 7:47 left in the second quarter, a layup by Sergio Rodriguez capped a 6-0 run and actually gave Real Madrid a 33-31 lead. The lively sellout crowd was buzzing, and for the Celtics it suddenly felt like a road game rather than a friendly exhibition.
But Boston closed the half with a 23-10 run and never was really threatened after that. Stevens mostly stuck with his veterans through the first three quarters. But in the fourth period, with a comfortable 16-point lead, he put the team’s three rookies, Rozier, R.J. Hunter and Jordan Mickey, in together.
Real Madrid continued to use its main players, but behind Rozier, the Celtics quickly extended the lead to 25 points.
“For the most part, they played the whole fourth quarter and kind of held it together,” Stevens said. “I thought that was good.”
The Celtics return to Boston on Friday before playing a pair of preseason games in New York next week. By then, they will be acclimated to their normal time zone. But they will face the challenge of playing against other NBA teams.