OK, let's start with the bad news. According to the numbers on the TD Garden scoreboard, the Celtics did not fare in their preseason opener against the Toronto Raptors tonight. They fell behind early in hideous fashion, allowing the Raps to get out to leads of 8-0 and then 14-2, and despite multiple attempts to claw their way back later in the evening, they came up short. The Celtics lost 97-89, and their quest for the first win of the Brad Stevens era will have to wait.
Now for the good news.
Preseason basketball has never been about wins and losses - more importantly, the name of the game is experimentation. The exhibition season represents a chance for teams to try out new scenarios, new combinations of players, new schemes that might come in handy in the regular season. That's especially important for a team like the Celtics, with a new coach in Stevens and a new identity sans Paul Pierce and Kevin Garnett. And for their part, the Celtics did a fine job tonight discovering a few revealing truths about themselves.
Stevens spoke before the game about one of his favorite combinations of players on the roster - that being the three-man group of Gerald Wallace, Jared Sullinger and Kelly Olynyk. And sure enough, just as Stevens predicted, those three players emerged as three of the brightest spots on this ragtag Celtics roster in game one.
"I thought they did a really good job out there," Stevens said postgame. "I don't have a plus-minus report right now, so I don't know, but I thought they played pretty well together. The starters got better as they got their feet underneath them, but I thought the second unit came in and played really great."
All three of the Celtic stars came off the bench in tonight's opener, but all were productive when they saw the floor. Wallace played 26 minutes and led the team in scoring, with 16 points on 6-of-10 shooting; Sullinger added 14 with six rebounds; and Olynyk, while unusually quiet on the scoring front, was an impressive facilitator in an improvised point forward role, finishing with a team-high five assists.
"I love both of those guys," Wallace said of Sullinger and Olynyk. "Those are two bigs that can spread the floor, they're able to cut, and both of them are great passers. They complement me because they open up the floor for me to drive, and they're able to make those passes when I cut."
Preseason basketball is all about discovering new things about your roster. One example: The Celtics discovered tonight that Olynyk can pass. The shaggy-haired Canadian big man made waves in summer league action with his scoring ability - optimists said he was Dirk Nowitzki on a good night. But no one said he might have a little Steve Nash in him as well.
"He's one of our best passers on our team," Stevens said. "He can play in the high post, he can pass, he can make backdoor passes, he can handle the basketball. He didn't score it like he's been scoring it, but that'll come. He's a good player, and his ability to make plays passing the ball makes other players better."
"Guys were making hard cuts and setting good screens, and you want to reward them for that kind of stuff," added Olynyk. "Anytime you can get other people involved and make people around you better, that's a great thing to do in the game of basketball."
It wasn't just Olynyk that passed the ball well - the entire team thrived when the rock stayed moving. The Celtics' offense got stagnant in the opening minutes as guys came out settling for jump shots, but they snapped out of it late in the first quarter, and eventually the team's unselfish nature shined. There were plenty of assists to go around - including four each for Sullinger and Wallace, plus three each for Avery Bradley and Courtney Lee. All in all, the Celtics finished with 25 assists on 33 made buckets.
"That's pretty good," Stevens said. "I like that. That's a good place to start. If we can keep moving the ball like that, I think we'll knock down more of those shots. I think one of the strengths of our team for these first seven games has been an unselfish nature, just playing the game."
To be sure, the Celtics still have a whole host of weaknesses to shore up between now and Oct. 30. Their offense still lacks any kind of cohesive structure, their interior defense has holes like Swiss cheese and their rebounding game leaves a lot to be desired. But having said all of that, the C's are still fairly happy with the strides they've taken so far, all things considered.
"I think we took two steps forward," Wallace said. "For one, we got out there and we believed in ourselves. We didn't quit. We gave ourselves a chance to win. Toronto came out to a hot start, and we were able to fight and get back into the game. We moved the ball well, we shared the ball well, we made shots. We did some good things defensively and offensively, and we've just got to improve on that and continue to get better through training camp."