The Celtics came out of the half trailing by seven when the newest member of the Cs decided to put an end to the competition. In a sight unimaginable a year ago, Al Horford stepped into the paint, slid his feet around decisively, and pressed into defenders at the rim to draw points and fouls.
The Horford experience has begun, ladies and gentlemen.
Boston grabbed their first preseason win in Greensboro, NC with a 107-92 decision over a Hornets team that didn’t turn up the pressure on Boston’s defense often. Despite a streaky second quarter of their own, the Cs remained within striking distance entering the third.
Horford drove inside to begin the Celts’ 31-3 run with a layup through traffic, hit a 26-foot jumper off a dish from Avery Bradley (6-11, 14 points), then slammed a ferocious dunk in the face of Marvin Williams (4-9, 9 pts, 5 rebounds) off a Jae Crowder (3-7, 8 pts, 6 reb) inbound pass.
From there the road team was the only one of the two to show up even as starters hit the pine. Charlotte only mustered nine points over the first nine minutes of the third.
The excitement of the monster run was dampened by the sight of Isaiah Thomas with a wrap on his left wrist, as reported by Abby Chin. It was the same one that pained him into the postseason in the spring. He did not return to the game after recording a team-high 15 points on a 5-of-10 shooting rate.
A tightly contested, back-and-forth first half stood in stark contrast to the one-sided Celtics dominance following halftime. With an almost exaggerated emphasis on ball movement Boston started 1 of 6 from the field before jumping ahead 15-11. Both teams courted their projected starters for roughly 20 minutes with the exception being Bradley who played nearly 30 minutes.
Several early sights were familiar from the Philadelphia game, including Horford often streamlining the transition process by dribbling up the court himself, the team collectively struggling to grab hold of rebounds inside, and Crowder aggressively denying the ball from his assignment, Michael Kidd-Gilchrist (3-10, 7 pts).
A pull-up three from Thomas pushed Boston’s lead to 22-14 when Brad Stevens decided to begin working on the second unit. Jaylen Brown (4-11, 12 pts, 5 reb) shifted in at power forward next to Crowder and stole a ball on the interior taking it coast-to-coast while eyeing teammates to open a lane for himself down the middle for a smooth score. Then Terry Rozier (6-9, 14 pts) and Marcus Smart (4-8, 8 pts) rotated in to take control of the offense and things got messy.
Charlotte unloaded on a 9-0 run as the Cs offense stalled for nearly six straight minutes into the second quarter. There were several defensive lapses as well, with Tyler Zeller (1-5, 2 pts) patrolling the middle, between Frank Kaminsky (outside jumpers and Ramon Sessions (4-10, 11 pts) backdoor cuts. Then came the most stunning development of the night.
Bradley began taking extended ball-handling duties in the middle, patrolling the high post with limited dribbling while searching for open teammates on the perimeter. It wasn’t typical point-guard play in the mold of Thomas or Evan Turner, but by the end of the night he led all passers with Thomas at five assists.
Boston fell into a 39-33 hole before Thomas and Horford returned shortly after. Amir Johnson (1-3, 6 pts, 7 reb) flushed a three while Roy Hibbert put back a dunk and then bothered a Thomas floater as Charlotte extended to a 45-36 advantage.
The Celtics pressed back with some nifty offensive sets from their starters. Horford’s screens continued to be sensational, including one that set up a Thomas three with under two minutes left off another high key pass from Bradley. Later Brown pushed the pace again off a rebound, missing and tracking down his own rebound to set up a Crowder three. They still trailed 51-43 at half, but the effort down the stretch of the second set up the surge ahead.
The throttling of the Hornets in the third began with Horford’s aforementioned layup. It then continued with a series of hustle plays from Johnson transitioning from a half-court steal to an offensive board that gave Thomas room for a floater. That four-point swing turned into an overwhelming run and eventually a 40-point quarter for the Celts.
Charlotte went from the 8:18 to 3:54 mark in the frame, when James Young arrived on the scene, without a single point
In the fourth R.J. Hunter (1-2, 3 pt) received some insignificant minutes while Young himself was actually surprisingly active around the ball. He poked it loose on a Spencer Hawes (3-7, 6 pts, 6 assists) drive in the third and hauled in six rebounds in 17 minutes.
Gerald Green missed the game again with his hip ailment, Kelly Olynyk remained sidelined from him offseason shoulder injury, while Smart battled through a sprained ankle. Initially he threw up some wild shots with a brunt of the secondary ball handling duties in his hands, but he settled down later, nailing back-to-back mid rangers off the dribble before the night was through.
Afterward Stevens seemed to downplay the Thomas injury.
Stevens said he hasn't heard Isaiah was hurt, so it sounds like a minor injury. #Celtics— gary washburn (@GwashburnGlobe) October 7, 2016
Next up on their parade of strange venues the Celtics hit Mohegan Sun in Uncasville, CT Saturday, where they’ll once again line up against the Hornets.