When the starters walked to the bench with just over four minutes left in the third quarter of Wednesday night’s preseason game, their latest thorough outing complete, the Celtics held a commanding 19-point lead over the Raptors.
Although the game did not end at that point, it was the moment of the night that actually mattered. Toronto eventually overcame the big deficit and grabbed a 125-119 overtime win at TD Garden behind its third-stringers, but the Celtics were in command when they needed to be.
“Super encouraged,” Jayson Tatum said. “I think it kind of feels like we’re leaving off from the second half of last season, just the way that we’re moving the ball, playing with each other. It just feels natural. It’s fun playing that way, and I think it shows in these first two games.”
This thorough performance by the regular rotation players followed a 41-point romp against the Hornets on Sunday. Jaylen Brown led with 23 points, second-year forward Sam Hauser hit five 3-pointers and added 22, and Tatum tallied 18 points and 10 rebounds.
Through the first three quarters, the Raptors shot just 38.7 percent from the field and 13 percent from the 3-point line. There continue to be no signs that the suspension of coach Ime Udoka has done anything to dent this team’s approach or momentum.
“I think we’re just picking up where we left off,” Brown said. “Defensively, knowing when to make the right reads, and knowing when to make the right reads on offense all flows together. Right now, I feel like we’ve got a good chemistry.”
The Celtics led, 93-74, early in the fourth before the Raptors surged back when both teams went deep into their benches. A 3-pointer by Gabe Brown gave the Raptors a 106-104 lead with 1:55 left.
With 1:11 remaining in regulation, Hauser was whistled for a charge on a drive, but the Celtics challenged the call and prevailed, resulting in a three-point play and a 109-108 lead. But Payton Pritchard missed a potential game-winner at the buzzer and the Raptors seized control in the extra session.
Observations from the game:
▪ In the win over the Hornets on Sunday, Celtics interim coach Joe Mazzulla said not to read into his substitution patterns because they’d likely change as the preseason goes along, a pretty common approach. But it was more of the same in the first half Wednesday, with Derrick White remaining in the starting lineup and Noah Vonleh being the first player on a training camp deal to get an opportunity. Vonleh had a nice dunk and three rebounds in three first-half minutes and appears to be one of the favorites to land a regular roster spot before cuts next week.
▪ Malcolm Brogdon continues to look quite comfortable in the offense. Even though he averaged 20 points per game for the Pacers last season, he is clearly embracing a pass-first mentality. He registered a game-high nine assists — no other player had more than five — in just 23 minutes. On one assist, he passed up an open layup and fed the ball to Tatum for an open dunk, an easy way to endear himself to the team’s superstar.
“What [Brogdon] does for us is going to be huge,” Brown said. “He can be a go-to guy anywhere else. How he reads the game, how he picks and chooses his spots. He just got out there and made the play right every time. Really makes our offense go.”
▪ Three of Brogdon’s early assists came on passes to Hauser, who wowed the crowd with his long-range shooting once again. The first was a first-quarter buzzer-beater and followed some crisp ball movement.
“I know when I’m playing with [Brogdon] just to stay ready,” Hauser said, “because he knows where I’m at on the floor at all times. So he’s easy to play with. He’s a playmaker. He gets others open as well as himself, so it’s fun playing with him.”
▪ There was some skepticism among the fan base when Celtics brass insisted it was confident that Hauser could fill some of the void created by Danilo Gallinari’s ACL injury. Two preseason games do not prove that point, but Hauser’s shooting has certainly been encouraging.
“It’s definitely a next-man-up mentality,” Hauser said, “and them showing confidence in me gives me confidence to kind of show what I can do, the best I can do.”
▪ The Celtics seem set on keeping Brogdon in a sixth-man role, but there’s little doubt that he’ll be part of closing lineups quite often, especially with Robert Williams out. At the end of the first half, he had a strong stint while joining Brown, Tatum, Marcus Smart and Al Horford.
▪ The first quarter was an adventure for Smart. He flipped one pass about five rows deep into the stands, then on a fast break he passed up a relatively open layup in order to attempt an alley-oop pass off the backboard toward a streaking Brown. The play didn’t end well, and moments later Smart was on the bench, perhaps an early statement by Mazzulla.
▪ Last season the players on the bench made a habit of standing until Boston scored its first basket. But this season the NBA added a “point of education” that forbids players who are not in the game from standing at or away from their team’s bench. Near the start of this matchup, the Celtics stood anyway. Then an official stopped the game and told them to sit. It at least clears the view for some people in the lower level.
▪ Before the game Mazzulla said he planned to see how the game unfolded before deciding whether to play veteran forward Blake Griffin, who signed with the team Monday. But that possibility was snuffed out right away when Griffin arrived at the bench wearing a white sweatsuit.