There was an unusual level of concern for the Celtics after a rather putrid preseason, that it would take considerable time to develop chemistry, that they may be completely unprepared for their season-opening game against the Philadelphia 76ers.
It took mere minutes for the Celtics to exert their defensive presence and finally, in the second half, the offense caught up. It was a picturesque performance for a season opener, lots of positives but definitely enough mistakes for coach Brad Stevens to keep his guys modest and grinding.
Game 1 of this planned journey to the NBA Finals was a success. The Celtics’ dominated the 76ers, 105-87.
Defensively, they kept the stellar duo of Ben Simmons and Joel Embiid in check, as neither was able to put their imprint on the game. Offensively, the Celtics battered the 76ers with their depth. The bench combined for 44 points and on a night where Kyrie Irving looked as if it was his first game in seven months, the Celtics really didn’t need his offensive production.
That’s the difference between this season and last season. The Celtics are so loaded with scorers that there is little pressure for Irving or Gordon Hayward to carry the offensive burden. Hayward, by the way, was steady in his return from his horrific leg injury with 10 points, 5 rebounds and 4 steals in 25 minutes.
He wasn’t near the player who arrived here from Utah. That will take time. But again, he didn’t need to be. Jayson Tatum’s 23-point, nine-rebound night ensured the Celtics would coast to what would be a satisfying victory. Philadelphia is supposed to be their primary roadblock to the NBA Finals, a team with immense talent that just needs experience.
But this game was eerily similar to their playoff matchup last season. The 76ers made their share of eye-popping plays, Simmons looked like a future star, Embiid displayed his array of shifty post moves, but it wasn’t enough. The 76ers made no real offseason additions, so they relied on J.J. Redick to launch threes and he ended up taking a whopping 17 shots.
The Celtics held Philadelphia to 19.2 percent shooting on 3-pointers. The Celtics dominated the rebounding in the second half. They shot 51.2 percent after the break.
“You know our strength has to be our depth,” Stevens said. “And when one guy doesn’t have it going, the rest of the team has to pick them up. And everybody has to play with great effort because the guy behind him is chomping at the bit to get in. I think we’ll clean up that offensive stuff. But if we can guard like that, we’ve got a chance to be decent.”
Stevens, of course, is being his modest self. He isn’t concerned with the offense in the early going. He relishes defensive stops. He wants his defense to clog the lane for Simmons and force Embiid into stepbacks with physical post resistance.
The luxury Stevens has is at least four players who can flourish offensively and lead the team on any given night. Tatum scored 23 and the remaining four starters combined for 38. But the other four starters didn’t need to match Tatum because the bench was dominant.
The depth is going to give Stevens a lot of options to win games. There will be nights the Celtics will have to outscore opponents and others, such as Tuesday, when they will stymie the opponent with defense, sending them into discouragement.
“This is not a rivalry,” Embiid said. “I don’t know our record against them, but it’s pretty bad. They always kick our ass, so this is not a rivalry.”
The 76ers have some things to figure out before the teams meet again Christmas and if they are going to serve as a real challenge to the Celtics. Defensively, Boston has figured them out. After an impressive first half in which he looked like LeBron James, the 6-foot-10-inch Simmons was relegated to forcing layups against layers of defenders.
What was encouraging for the Celtics was they again were the better team in the second half. Stevens has earned a reputation of being one of the better halftime adjusters, and the Celtics pulled away with transition offense and timely 3-point shooting.
“It’s a great feeling, obviously in the preseason we didn’t play well at all,” Tatum said. “That [last] week of practice did us justice and it showed tonight. We understand [Kyrie’s] the leader and he’s rarely going have a game like he did tonight, but, when he does, everybody else has to be ready.”
After a rather awful preseason, followed by nine days of preparation, the Celtics looked ready for the prime time. They eased any concerns about integrating Hayward and Irving, beating a quality opponent, and beginning this season in a lot better frame of mind than that disastrous opener last season in Cleveland.
It was step one, the first test of the new semester, and the Celtics passed. But the course will become increasingly difficult, yet it seems there is enough depth and confidence to prevail.