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Starters soar but bench stumbles as Celtics fall to Sixers 92-89

The Boston Celtics bench failed to overcome the Philadelphia 76ers young guns in their first preseason matchup.

NBA: Preseason-Philadelphia 76ers at Boston Celtics Bob DeChiara-USA TODAY Sports

Basketball is back! Well, kind of. In what was a first glimpse for fans since the end of last season, the Boston Celtics took on the Philadelphia 76ers in a preseason matchup at UMass.

The Sixers were without their No. 1 draft pick, Ben Simmons, who due to a foot injury will not be seeing any action on the court for several more weeks. The Celtics, meanwhile, were down Gerald Green and Kelly Olynyk, though both are expected to be ready to play by the beginning of the regular season with some question marks remaining around Kelly’s condition.

With Joel Embiid and Dario Saric in their staring lineup, the Simmons-less Sixers still had plenty of untested young talent to tryout in this preseason matchup, as Simmons’s injury only intensifies the interest around Embiid and Saric.

The action started early as the Celtics made a statement before the game even began, with players linking arms during the national anthem. In what was a nod to San Francisco quarterback Colin Kaepernick’s recent protest aimed at bringing attention to the plight of disenfranchised minorities in America and linked to the #Blacklivesmatter movement, The Celtics also referenced their own proud history. The linking of arms, which was planned and discussed prior to the game, was a direct reference to the 1960-61 Celtics, who made the same gesture during their own tumultuous times in an effort to show solidarity with civil rights activists around the country and the world.

With this statement at the beginning of the preseason, the Celtics have shown that they want to make a positive impact on what they think is an important conversation happening in America right now. As the video below shows, these are issues that are so important to Celtics players, staff and fans that they simply can’t be ignored. The below video was posted online by the Boston Celtics as the game began.

It will be interesting to see how other teams decide to enter the conversation and how much effect these protests will have on the NBA season, as well as on how these important issues are addressed.

But as the game begun it was back to business as usual. In an auspicious start to his career as a Celtic, Al Horford made the first shot of the game, continuing to score throughout the first quarter and using his experience and BBIQ to outshine the Sixers young frontcourt.

There were some hiccups and growing pains, with the Celtics losing the ball in the half-court more than once. But for the most part both sides suffered from first-game nerves early, and some great playmaking and solid shooting from Avery Bradley kept the Celtics ahead of the Sixers for most of the first quarter.

The Celtics controlled the pace by whipping the ball around the court and trusting each other to make the right play.

Rozier and Smart both got a run early on, showcasing their improved form by helping on both ends of the floor. Meanwhile, Jaylen Brown tried to make the most of his limited minutes in the first and nailed a baseline jumper, but he was also summarily shutdown by Joel Embiid on a dunk attempt in the final seconds of the first quarter.

Other than that, the Celtics offense looked pretty strong even though there were some bloopers of sorts, as Zeller was also mightily blocked when he rose up for an early dunk and Jerebko airballed a three.

The Sixers’ size slowed down the Celtics, and Isaiah Thomas struggled to make an impact early on, finishing the first quarter with only 3 assists and no points of his own. IT’s teammates more than made up for his lack of production, though, and the Celtics finished the first quarter with a solid ten-point lead, 25-15.

Opening the second quarter with the lineup of Rozier, Brown, Smart, Jerebko and Zeller, the Celtics attempted to exert their control on the pace of the game. At times it seemed like the Celtics were toying with the young Sixers, slowing down the game only to speed it up moments later. The Celtics kept their Eastern Conference rivals at bay for most of the second, maintaining and slightly extending their lead throughout the quarter.

Brown got a bit more time during the second quarter, where he showcased his athleticism while battling toward the basket and providing smothering defense. Thomas managed to make an impact as he settled more comfortably into his shooting rhythm and finally got to the foul line. In a move that foretold the continuance of the Celtics’ strong-arm defense, Crowder stole the ball almost immediately after stepping back onto the court, catching an errant Sixers pass with both hands and immediately getting it up the other end of the court.

Once the full complement of the Celtics starting five was re-inserted into the game, they completely took control through their superior versatility and ability. The pace of this group when they play together is something to behold. With almost every starter capable of bringing the ball up the court, the Celtics can run to the rim immediately after every rebound and stymie their opponents with a series of fastbreaks.

By the end of the first half it was clear that this starting unit was something special. The unit generated 39 of the Celtics’ 43 points and outran their opponents on every play.

Whereas the first unit looked comfortable playing together, the Celtics’ second unit seemed a little off their game. Scoring was always going to be a concern for the Celtics’ second unit going into this season, with primary playmaker Evan Turner now playing for Portland. Still, the defensive intensity of a Rozier-Smart-Brown backcourt did manage to prevent the Sixers from capitalising on the lack of offense. Of course, once Olynyk and Green are back on the bench the second unit will have two additional scorers to rotate into the lineup, so for now it’s probably not worth fretting too much.

As the second half began, the Sixers subbed in a well-rested Nerlens Noel, who was able to make an impact right away. TJ McConnell also went on a scoring run to bring the Sixers within striking distance.

The Celtics’ second unit still looked a little lost as the third quarter continued, but with around six minutes still remaining in the third Rozier started to step up and lead by example with playmaking and locking in on defense. James Young and Jordan Mickey saw some minutes, with Young managing to make a bit of a case for himself, scoring 6 points off three shots. Mickey mostly held his own against the Sixers’ much lauded frontcourt, but he failed to impress overall.

Nonetheless, the Sixers battled back against the Celtics’ second stringers, evening the scoreline and making it only a two-point game going into the fourth with the Celtics leading 63-61.

As the fourth quarter began the Celtics’ bench remained on the floor, with Stevens giving some minutes to R.J. Hunter and Demetrius Jackson in an attempt to gauge the rookie’s potential as the Celtics head coach endeavours to finalise the regular season roster.

The continued roster tweaks finally impacted the scoreline during the final quarter, as the Sixers took the lead for the first time in the game. Unfazed, Stevens continued to give an extended run to players competing for Boston’s final roster spot.

Stepping up, Rozier managed some big buckets to keep the Celtics in the game, while the rest of the bench seemed to struggle under pressure. At the halfway mark in the final quarter, the Celtics continued to trail Philadelphia.

Some aggressive defense from Smart and Rozier kept the Celtics in the game, but it was a thundering slam dunk from Brown that got the Celtics within three points and got the crowd on their feet. The rookie followed up his high-flying dunk with a driving finger-roll layup and then missed on a three-point attempt. Yet with moments to go in the final quarter, Jaylen Brown showed he can rise up during high-pressure situations as he continued to find ways to score.

As the clock ticked down, it looked like the game was Philly’s to lose, and a few final fumbles almost gave the Celtics the win.

With 14 seconds left on the clock, Philly had the lead and the ball. It looked like it was all over until an inbound play was interrupted by the Cobra, Marcus Smart. The Cs attempted a last-ditch effort to grab the win, but a missed shot from Smart gave Philly the ball yet again.

Another fumble from Philly gave the Celtics another shot at evening the score with 3 seconds left on the clock, but a miss from Mickey meant that Philadelphia would finish with the win.

In the end, the second unit wasn’t able to battle back, and the Sixers managed the preseason win. I’m sure Philly fans are happy to start their preseason on a somewhat positive note for the first time in a long time. But I’m also sure Boston fans aren’t too disappointed with the loss. For the Celtics, this was more about trying out their young players and seeing who can make the final cut than it was about getting the win.

We saw a lot of what we expected. There were some unconventional lineups, some players getting tested out as the rotation is finalised, some impressive play from the Celtics starters and plenty to be excited about for the season.

Brown showed he’s not to be underestimated, Rozier continued to make a strong case for a role as the leader of the second unit, Smart flexed his cobra-like reflexes and Young, Mickey, Hunter, and Jackson all got some minutes in. Meanwhile, the starting unit showed they could be something really special, with Horford fitting in perfectly.

Despite the loss, the Celtics showed they have a lot to work with this season. First-game jitters and growing pains aside, the Celtics look like they’re ready to make a serious run when the regular season finally begins. Considering the speed of the starting lineup, the Celtics will be doing a lot of running this year.

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