Before the Celtics faced the Raptors on Friday night, point guard Kemba Walker took a microphone and walked toward midcourt to address the eager fans.
For some, it might have induced some post-traumatic stress. Last October, Kyrie Irving stood on this same court at an event for season ticket-holders, took a microphone and said he intended to re-sign with Boston at year’s end. Irving, of course, did not re-sign with Boston at year’s end.
But Walker’s message Friday was simpler, and it struck the right notes about what bubbly Garden crowds want.
“We promise to work extremely hard all year, go hard all year,” Walker said. “Let’s get this thing going. Go, Celtics. Let’s go.”
The fans erupted, and then the game began, and Walker and his teammates provided more specific examples. They charged toward the rim, they tussled for offensive rebounds, they threw small, energetic lineups at the defending world champions, and ultimately seized a 112-106 win, their first of the year.
After their loss to the 76ers on Wednesday, coach Brad Stevens remained encouraged. After this impressive win, he was measured.
“I don’t feel much different than I felt on Wednesday,” Stevens said. “I felt we played hard on Wednesday; we just made a lot of mistakes. This is early in the year we’re not doing jumping jacks when we win and we’re not going to put our head in our hands when we lose. We’re just going to move forward.”
Nevertheless, there were encouraging developments. The Celtics shook off a slow shooting start and made 11 of 25 3-pointers in the second half. Despite missing their top rebounder, Enes Kanter, they pounced on their own missed shots time and again, gathering 21 offensive rebounds that led to a 21-2 edge in second-chance points.
“We don’t want to flood the offensive glass and not get back in transition,” Stevens said, “but the appropriate guys have to go at the appropriate times. And we have a lot of athletic wings and depending on where they are on the floor, we want them to go, go.”
And then there was Walker. He came here as Irving’s replacement and will be compared with him throughout this season whether he wants to or not. He had a frustrating, tentative opener against the 76ers, and Friday’s game started similarly, with a 1 for 9 first half.
He has not been here or struggled nearly long enough to have anyone turn on him, but there was an uneasy reaction from the Garden crowd as Friday began to unfold, as if they just wanted to figure out a way to get him cooking again.
That was pretty much the goal of the other Celtics, too.
“They knew I wanted to play well and I wanted to make shots, but I was struggling,” Walker said. “But I can’t say enough about it. They kept me confident. I really just appreciate those guys for keeping me level-headed, keeping me confident and just allowing me to be myself.”
Stevens said he has added some of the simple actions that Walker thrived with so extensively during his time with the Hornets, giving him the space to make plays downhill.
During a stretch of less than three minutes midway through the fourth quarter, Walker hit a pull-up, took a charge, drilled a three, attacked for a pair of layups, and then made two free throws. He said it felt like he was just in the gym by himself, finding his spots like he knows he can. But the sellout crowd, the crowd Walker had dreamed of playing in front of since he agreed to sign here last summer, made it clear that he was hardly in a gym by himself.
Walker finished with 22 points, and he will surely have games in which he scores at least twice as many at that. But that fourth-quarter stretch felt important for him, even if it is only October.
“That’s who he is,” Jayson Tatum said, “and is going to continue to be.”
Tatum and Jaylen Brown finished with 25 points and nine rebounds apiece to lead the Celtics. Tatum was 8 for 22 for the second consecutive game, but his shot selection continues to be encouraging. Brown was slowed by foul trouble against the 76ers but played a game-high 38 minutes against the Raptors.
The rookie Grant Williams came off the bench and provided some tough, veteran-like minutes. He grabbed seven rebounds and dished out four assists and absorbed an offensive foul from the burly center Marc Gasol during a critical fourth-quarter stretch.
Stevens said he sent Williams a text message Thursday after it was clear Kanter would be sidelined with a bruised knee, telling him — perhaps jokingly? — that he needed to learn everything about the center position by Friday. Then he was plugged in there and did not look out of place.
The Celtics needed all these contributions to withstand an 18-for-36 3-point shooting effort by the Raptors. Pascal Siakam had 33 points and eight rebounds and used a powerful third quarter to stake his team to a 7-point lead.
After the Celtics pushed back in front, Siakam’s alley-oop tied the score at 104 with 3:14 left. Then Gordon Hayward and Brown drilled a pair of 3-pointers to help make it 110-106. And at the other end, Walker truly endeared himself to this crowd, as he stepped in front of OG Anunoby and drew a charge, yelling toward his teammates on the bench.