The Celtics are officially undefeated, so far.
The Boston Celtics went up against the Philadelphia 76ers on Wednesday night at the TD Garden in their first game of the regular season. After a difficult first quarter, the Celtics cruised to a 112-95 win, putting them at 1-0 for the season.
The first quarter was a bit of a surprise. The young bigs to whom Philly has pinned their future hopes were very effective early on. Jahlil Okafor and Nerlens Noel combined to go 8-of-14 for sixteen points, with eight rebounds and three blocked shots in the first quarter alone. While Tyler Zeller and David Lee were both aggressive going to the basket, they were unable to slow down the offensive onslaught from Philly's bigs in the early going.
The most effective player for the Celtics in the beginning of the game was Jae Crowder. The forward made plays all over both sides of the court in the first frame, on his way to fourteen points, six rebounds, three assists, and two steals for the game.
The second quarter saw the Celtics bench pick up the pace, and put together a very successful run. After a mix of Amir Johnson and Jared Sullinger led a stout defensive effort to halt the 76er's scoring surge, Brad Stevens decided to go with a little bit of small ball. Putting Johnson at center, with Jonas Jerebko manning the power forward position, helped spark a solid 12-2 Boston run in the middle of the frame. With Okafor out of the game in the middle of the quarter, the Celtics were able to pull ahead, and moved into halftime with a 51-40 lead.
It seems clear that Coach Stevens has emphasized the pace aspect of his 'pace and space' system. Boston made a very noticeable effort to get to the rim, and to run in transition. They had twenty-six fast break points in the game, with fifteen coming in the first half alone.
Marcus Smart was very solid in the first half, and displayed improved decision-making, ball-handling, and shooting - he made both of his threes, including a buzzer beater. The fact that Stevens trusted the sophomore guard enough to have him take the last shot of the half speaks volumes about how much the point guard has grown as a player.
As good as Smart was in the first half, Okafor was better, going 6-8 for 12 points, with four rebounds. However, starting in the second quarter, the story began to change. Boston began to double team the big man, causing him to cough up the ball a game-high 8 times. Despite his turnover troubles, the Duke center finished with 26 points, 7 rebounds, and 2 blocked shots.
In the third quarter, Isaiah Thomas shook off the rust that he had shown in the first two frames and started to take over. He was aggressive in the pick-and-roll, attacked the hoop consistently, and knocked down an abundance of free throws. He finished the quarter with twenty-three points, on the way to a total of 27 points, 7 assists, and 3 steals in the game. Perhaps more importantly, he also made plays on the defensive side of the ball - seemingly striking out against the notion that he is a defensive liability.
Stevens continued to run with small-ball lineups, featuring Amir Johnson at the center position. In this frame, he had both Jerebko and Crowder play the 4, at different times. These lineups were consistently successful, and demonstrate that Boston is still open to playing small, despite their glut of big men. It's true that Kelly Olynyk was not available for this game, but the consistency with which the Celtics went (relatively) small may well be an indicator of things to come.
The fourth quarter was a balanced team effort, in which the Celtics pulled away from the Sixers with a combination of good passing, sound defense, and consistent finishing. Perhaps most encouraging was the way that the entire team was playing during that final frame. They were intense, and they were very unselfish, but more importantly, they were very clearly having fun.
This Boston team is going to be fun to watch this year, and early signs point to more of a focus on pace, efficient shot selection, and very entertaining passing. A win against the Sixers does not a champion make, but early signs are encouraging.
Boston will look to start their season off with a win streak when they take on the Toronto Raptors on Friday, while Philly will try to get onto the right foot on Friday against the Jazz.
One game down, eighty-one to go. Welcome back to regular-season basketball.