fb-pixel Skip to main content

PHILADELPHIA — The Celtics limped away from their grinding 107-93 season-opening loss to the Philadelphia 76ers a bizarre combination of encouraged and discouraged.

It was a ghastly performance for Boston. They struggled to score all night, even when they had built a first-half lead. Kemba Walker, who usually scorched the Celtics in his Charlotte days, found himself missing countless routine jumpers and running layups.

Jayson Tatum got off to a solid start and then reverted back to his bad habit of trying to do too much or make the spectacular shot. Jaylen Brown, whose $115 million contract extension is still probably on the league’s desk because it’s so new, had more fouls than field goals.

Advertisement



It was a dreary night for a team that felt good about itself throughout the preseason. Boston missed 14 free throws, 19 3-pointers while Walker and Tatum finished a combined 12-for-40 from the field.

Yet, the consensus after Wednesday’s opener that it was more self-inflicted wounds rather than the 76ers dominance. Philadelphia or Milwaukee have been picked to win the Eastern Conference. The 76ers have been pointing to this year since “The Process” began. They fielded a starting lineup with three maximum salary players along with five-time All-Star Al Horford and valuable swingman Josh Richardson.

They were supposed to beat the Celtics. They are the better team on paper, but the Celtics showed enough to at least ponder whether they are that much better. They made a plethora of mistakes, were far too aggressive on defense that led to fouls and missed several open 3-pointers.

Walker, making his Celtics debut, was 4-for-18 shooting and never got into a rhythm. He wasn’t tentative but perhaps he was trying too hard to make a good first impression.

“Just a little bit disappointed, obviously,” Walker said. “I just wish I could done a lot more, play a lot better for these guys but there’s nothing you can really do but try to get better.”

Advertisement



Celtics coach Brad Stevens had been mum on a starting lineup until 30 minutes before the opening tip but he started Enes Kanter in the middle. He shuttled in Robert Williams and Daniel Theis to also defend Joel Embiid and the strategy was effective. Embiid finished with 15 points on 5-for-14 shooting. It was a good test for the Celtics’ big men because the biggest fear entering the season is they would struggle defending legitimate centers. And they don’t get as legit as Embiid.

Williams committed four fouls in 10:46 but was able to protect the rim and actually finished with a plus-7, the lone Celtics with a positive plus-minus.

As much emphasis as the NBA and sports networks want to place on the opening game, it is just one game and Stevens couldn’t have possibly had all the answers after a rather routine preseason. He chose to start Gordon Hayward, Brown, and Tatum together for the first time since Nov. 17, 2018, making the Celtics small but versatile.

It may have worked had Brown not picked up four first-half fouls or had the starting five not missed a combined 12 free throws.

While the players denied they were dealing with opening-night jitters, that is the only way to explain some of the uncharacteristically sloppy ball. Tatum, determined to atone for his uneven second season, looked like the same “pass it, Jayson!” player at times while others looked smooth and comfortable in attacking the basket.

Advertisement



With Kyrie Irving, Horford, and Marcus Morris gone, there is added responsibility on Tatum to be more efficient. On Wednesday, he committed four turnovers, complained about foul calls each time he attacked the basket, and reached the free throw line just three times — an emphasis in the offseason.

“We missed a lot of shots, I know I did,” he said. “I don’t think I was nervous. It was one of those nights. It was our first game. I’m not making any excuses. They played a good game but we missed a lot of shots, a lot of free throws, easy ones that guys like myself and everyone else would make.”

Stevens came away encouraged. It’s not that he didn’t expect to win the game but he watched his team play about as poorly as it could and still have a chance to win in the fourth quarter. He watched reserve center Kyle O’Quinn hit a 3-pointer. He watched Kanter, a career 78 percent free throw shooter, miss five of seven. He watched a team that had all the best intentions for an opening-night upset struggle to score in the second half.

“We were out of sync on the offensive end,” he said. “How many field goal attempts did we miss? We knew it was going to be a heck of a battle. We’ve got to look at what we can do better and improve from it. It’s a long season, right? Our story isn’t written after one game.”

Advertisement



Stevens definitely knows more about his team that he did a few days ago.

And he knows is team is capable of better. That’s for sure.