The Celtics defeated the Hornets, 107-106, in a preseason game Sunday that felt a bit like it was meant for the 2018-19 season. Boston’s regulars had flashes of strong play but ultimately struggled and fell behind by 17 points against a team that is expected to be one of the worst in the NBA. And then members of the Celtics’ successful summer league squad helped ignite a fourth-quarter rally against Charlotte’s backups, as Javonte Green and Tacko Fall ignited the crowd.
Jayson Tatum had 20 points to lead the Celtics and Green came off the bench in the fourth quarter and finished with 15 on 7-for-7 shooting. Kemba Walker had 12 points and four assists in his Boston debut.
■ Walker, Tatum, Jaylen Brown, Gordon Hayward and Robert Williams started for the Celtics. Enes Kanter is widely expected to be Boston’s starter for the season opener, and coach Brad Stevens cautioned not to read too much into this lineup. He plans to mix up starting groupings throughout the preseason.
■ Tatum has drawn criticism in the past for relying on inefficient mid-range jump shots, and last week he vowed to have a season filled with 3-pointers, dunks and free throws. Of his 14 shots on Sunday night, eight were 3-pointers and just two were mid-range jumpers.
“I think he did a really good job,” Stevens said. “I thought he attacked when it was appropriate to attack. I thought he shot the three without hesitance, which is really important. The three will open up his drives, open up his opportunity at the rim, and it opens up his opportunity to go to the foul line.”
■ Gordon Hayward looked as confident as he did at any point last season. He started the game by throwing an alley-oop pass to Williams and then attacked the rim with poise and ferocity, even when he missed once he got there. Hayward’s progress has been a major talking point among his teammates this past week, and it looked if they have been telling the truth.
“It was certainly good to get out there and make some explosive moves to the basket,” Hayward said.
Hayward left the game midway through the third quarter and had his left arm examined by the team’s medical staff before an ice pack was put over his left elbow. He said the elbow was hit or overextended at some point in the first half and that he thought it would loosen up, but it didn’t. He said it was sore after the game, but that he expects to be fine.
■ Williams showed a glimpse of his promise with a powerful one-handed dunk to start the game, but he collected his third foul in just over five minutes. That sort of sums up the Robert Williams experience so far, acrobatic athleticism mixed with evolving awareness.
■ Al Horford, Aron Baynes, Terry Rozier, and Marcus Morris are all very good defenders, and they are all gone now, igniting real concerns about this team’s defense. Charlotte’s regular-rotation players mostly carved up Boston on Sunday, doing little to allay the new worries.
“If you don’t protect the paint first and foremost, you’re in trouble,” Stevens said. “We need to do a better job protecting the paint.”
Stevens added that the team needs to show improvement in all areas defensively. Kanter showed his value as a finisher inside, but he struggled on defense. Cody Zeller, who will never be confused with LeBron James, even got to the rim against him a couple times.
■ Brown’s seemingly improved passing was a pleasant development during his Team USA stint. He does not need to be Chris Paul, but improved playmaking would go a long way. Brown threw away a pair of passes in the first half, although he followed that up with several nice drives to the rim.
■ Grant Williams and Carsen Edwards were the first two rookies to check in. Edwards received a noticeably louder ovation and responded by quickly drilling a pair of 3-pointers. Edwards was the definition of a streak shooter at Purdue, but when he caught fire, few in college basketball were more dangerous.
He hit a quick-release three during the Celtics’ third-quarter comeback, and then cut the deficit to 1 with a steal and a layup. He finished with 11 points. Williams gathered a game-sealing rebound on a missed free-throw in the final seconds and had nine total rebounds in 18 minutes.
■ Tacko Fall was a sensation at the Las Vegas summer league, so it seemed likely that he would receive plenty of fan attention in his Boston debut, too. The first “we want Tacko” chants poured down early in the second quarter, and they hardly stopped after that. During one of the chants Stevens walked over to the center, now listed at 7-foot-5, and said something to him with a smile.
With 9:14 left in the fourth quarter, Fall entered the game and received a raucous ovation. About 20 seconds later, he caught a missed Tremont Waters shot in midair and threw down a two-handed slam. About 30 seconds after that, he swatted a Kobi Simmons shot.
And with 6:45 left, he drilled a turnaround jumper before blocking another shot later. He finished with 5 points, 3 rebounds, and 2 blocks in just under nine minutes.
Fall was asked if he felt any pressure when he entered the game.
“Pressure?” he said. “I feel like I’m in a dream.”
■ While fans will continue to clamor for Fall throughout the preseason, Green has been the favorite to snag Boston’s final roster spot ever since he signed a partially guaranteed deal following his standout summer league performance.
Green had five dunks and made all seven of his shots. He is probably the most athletic player on Boston’s roster, and he is a very good defender.
“It was so unexpected when [Stevens] called my name,” Green said. “It was like, ‘Javonte, get in there.’ It was like, ‘Oh snap.’ It wasn’t nerves, it was just like you have to perform at the best. I think [the nerves] were out the window.”
■ Former Celtic Rozier, who agreed to a three-year, $57 million deal with the Hornets this summer, received a nice ovation from the Garden crowd when he was introduced on Sunday. Rozier spent about 20 minutes in the bowels of the Garden chatting with former teammates Marcus Smart and Daniel Theis. Rozier said he was happy to be back, and also glad to get his return out of the way during an exhibition game.
“I know them guys miss me,” he said. “They miss me and I miss them too so it’s all good. It’s all love.”
■ Romeo Langford (groin) and Daniel Theis (abductor) sat out Sunday’s game. Langford has yet to take part in five-on-five scrimmage, so the Celtics did not want his first live action to take place in an actual game, but Stevens said he is close. Stevens said that Theis probably would have been available for a regular-season game.