BOSTON – They flew up the floor, these 20-something guards and wings, and questions of shots and minutes seemed to get buried underneath them. How would Jayson Tatum grow as a scorer playing in the shadow of Kyrie Irving? Simple. When Irving struggles, as he did in the Boston Celtics’ season-opening 105-87 win over the Philadelphia 76ers on Tuesday night, Tatum, who dropped 23 points, would step in. How would Gordon Hayward’s return impact the playing time Jaylen Brown and Terry Rozier earned last season? It didn’t, not with Brown starting alongside Hayward, and Rozier picking up 27 minutes — and 11 points — sliding between both guard spots in a reserve role.
There will be no grand projections here, not after this stinker. The two teams split 30 turnovers, 40 fouls and neither topped 30 percent from beyond the 3-point line. The Sixers were fresh off an extended trip to China, an early season kiss of death. Markelle Fultz is being force-fed minutes, Wilson Chandler is in street clothes and the odds of J.J. Redick clanging six of his eight threes are about the same as Fultz making them.
Still, the Celtics were billed as a team with firepower, and the NBA got a taste of what they’ve got.
Ten scorers for Boston, five in double figures, and this was with a preseason MVP candidate shooting 2 of 14 from the floor. Golden State is top-heavy with scoring talent, but the Celtics may be the league’s most diverse group. They are the spread gun, the Jericho missile, an offensive battleship. When Tatum wasn’t drilling step-backs, Rozier was scoring off screens; when Al Horford wasn’t bulling to the basket, Marcus Morris was knocking down jump shots.
“When you look at our roster, everyone brings strengths to the table,” Celtics coach Brad Stevens said. “Everybody has to do their roles exceptionally well.”
Boston’s preseason was brutal, and Stevens didn’t hide his frustration with it. But a week’s worth of practice leading into Tuesday night offered glimmers of hope. Irving and Hayward had strong weeks, Stevens said. Tatum, too. Stevens knows the offensive talent he has on the perimeter, which is why his message to his wing players was simple: Defend, do it at a high level, and everything else will work out.
That goes for Hayward, who racked up 10 points in 25 minutes in his first regular-season action since last season’s catastrophic ankle injury cost him all but five minutes. Hayward had checked so many boxes — from walking to running, scrimmaging to preseason play — that this opener could have been anticlimactic. Yet as Hayward stepped onto the floor, adrenaline pumped through him. When a video chronicling his recovery played during warmups, dark memories popped into his head.
“A lot of dark times,” Hayward said. “But to be honest, it was cool to see some of the progression. They showed a little bit of everything of me … it was cool watching it.”
Hayward wasn’t Hayward, and it may be some time before the All-Star swingman Boston signed to a max contract is seen on the floor. His speed, his burst, his ability to explode to the rim are all works in progress, and the Celtics won’t force the rediscovering of them. He’s on a 25-to-30-minute-per-game restriction and could be on it for a while.
“It was amazing to be out there on the court for a regular-season game,” Hayward said. “It was sloppy at first, but it was great just to be out there. That was a big step for me.”
Still, signs of progress are everything, and Hayward showed a few of them: the feathery 3-pointer he knocked down in a corner, the breezy jumpers he made popping off screens. Stevens sees Hayward as a playmaker with the starting unit, and the space Boston’s shooters give him to operate should create plenty of opportunities for him to be exactly that.
One game, and Boston knows the next time it sees these Sixers things could be decidedly different. Philly’s strategy to rebuild Fultz is unorthodox — Fultz played 24 minutes in the first half, just three in the second — but the hope is that Fultz’s superior talent will eventually spill out. Chandler, battling a hamstring injury, is a versatile scorer, while Dario Saric is better than the six-point clunker he submitted in the opener.
Yet if you were looking for cracks in Boston’s foundation, you didn’t find any. Not Tuesday, anyway. There will be frustrating nights, but this group seems resolved not to let them linger. Ask Marcus Morris. A free agent at the end of the season, Morris is a big body in a crowded bench mix. Morris could gripe about a reduced role, but he says he sees something in this team, something he has not seen in any other.
“This is my eighth year, so I see that we have a special team,” Morris said. “Minutes are going to change. The only thing that I can do is go out there and be effective with the minutes I’m given. That’s my whole motto [this] season. It can come down to 20 minutes, 15 minutes, so just try to change the game some type of way with the time I’m given.”
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