C's Deliver Opening-Night Reminder: They're Still a Top Horse in the Race
It took all of five days for the Boston Celtics to turn a 180 and leave their forgettable preseason in the distant past.
Boston raced out of the gates to a season-opening victory Wednesday night by downing two-time reigning MVP Giannis Antetokounmpo and his almighty Bucks 122-121 in a battle that went down to the final second.
Jayson Tatum scored 30 points, including the game’s 3-pointer that was canned on a step-back shot over Antetokounmpo from the left wing with 0.4 seconds left. Jaylen Brown was the fire to Tatum’s ice, as he added in a team-high 33 points during the victory.
Antetokoumpo, meanwhile, came up short – both literally and figuratively – on a game-tying free throw attempt during the final second to preserve Boston’s victory and quickly erase the memory of its winless preseason.
Said Tatum after the game, “We know what we need to look like when the games count.”
That look was described as “structured” and “purposeful” by Brad Stevens following the game. He spoke particularly about the offense, which looked stale and sloppy during two preseason games before exploding with life Wednesday.
The Celtics dropped 122 points on 47.5 percent shooting on the reigning top defense in the league, which was upgraded with the acquisition of perennial All-Defensive teamer Jrue Holiday. They probed the paint, they kicked out for open perimeter looks, and they shot the ball with a level of confidence that was missing during exhibition play.
Not Holiday, not Antetokounmpo, not Brook Lopez, nor anyone else on the Bucks roster could slow this Celtics offense on this night, and that was the case from the opening tip.
Boston scored 101 points through the first three quarters on 50 percent shooting. Brown had already scored 25 points by that stage of the contest, while Tatum had already tallied 21, and newcomer Jeff Teague had already provided 19.
By comparison, the Celtics averaged just 94 points per game and shot a woeful 38.9 percent from the field during their two preseason contests. They also did not have a single player score more than 19 points during either of those games.
From the team’s perspective, it was only a matter of time before its elite talent began to shine through and produce at the level to which Celtics fans have become accustomed.
“Obviously you want to translate what you’re doing in practice to preseason,” said Tatum, “but I’ve been in the league a little while now to understand it doesn’t always happen that way.
“We’re not always going to be perfect, but to come out and compete like we did tonight… If we control what we can control and play as hard as we can, if we win we win, and if we lose we lose, and you can live with that as a team just knowing you compete night-in and night-out.”
The Celtics not only competed Wednesday night, but they also played intelligent basketball from start to finish. After totaling 41 turnovers over two preseason games, they committed just six Wednesday night against the Bucks. With that, the team has already matched its total number of games from last season with six or fewer turnovers.
And that number was vital to the team’s victory Wednesday night, as Milwaukee, led by an MVP who can go coast to coast in just a few full-speed steps, is one of the most dangerous teams in the league in transition.
Also of note was the sudden existence of effort and toughness, which were also question marks during the preseason. Boston showcased both of those characters in abundance on Opening Night.
The C’s were far from dominant at the defensive end while allowing Milwaukee to tally 121 points on 51.1 percent shooting. However, they did fly around and communicate at both ends of the court. As Tatum noted, they competed.
They also found a way to stave off Milwaukee’s furious fourth-quarter comeback. Boston led by 17 points heading into the final period before the Bucks stormed back and regained a lead during the final four minutes of the contest. The Celtics did not waver in the face of that adversity and instead held onto the win with mental and physical toughness.
“We hung in there, and we took a good hit and kept ticking,” Stevens said of his team’s response. “It was good.”
Let’s go ahead and call that an understatement. This was better than good; it was exactly what the Celtics needed to move on from the games that didn’t matter, and transition into the ones that do matter.
Make no mistake about it: Boston is far from perfect at this stage of the season. It has a long way to go to develop into the team it wants to be come playoff time. But Wednesday’s victory over the vaunted Bucks and their unstoppable superstar served as a very clear reminder that the Celtics, led by Tatum and Brown, are still one of the top horses in the race.