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With Grant Williams playing small ball center and Jayson Tatum, Gordon Hayward and Jaylen Brown all hitting big threes in the last 4:30, the Celtics pulled away from a Toronto team that had set the pace for most of the second half.
Tatum and Brown rolled a lucky number, each Celtic springing for 25 points, to go along with a 15-point, eight-rebound night from Gordon Hayward. They needed every drop to offset a 33-point night from Pascal Siakam and another 29 from Kyle Lowry.
The Eastern Conference won’t be easy. The Raptors, without Leonard, were picked to finish from fifth to seventh, yet they looked like a conference title contender for most of the night. Siakam will make the All-Star team and Lowry continued his sparkling play against the Celtics.
Yet, the Celtics made enough plays to win. Kemba Walker, 8-for-31 shooting in his first seven quarters with Boston, warmed up for 11 points in the final period. Jayson Tatum, Gordon Hayward and Jaylen Brown each added 5 and Marcus Smart hit a pair of 3-pointers early in the quarter.
The Celtics didn’t rely on one player to carry them home as they did last season. They won by making a collective effort on offense and defense. Walker took four charges. Tatum had three steals. The team collected 21 offensive rebounds, including six from rookie Grant Williams.
If the Celtics are going to make noise in the East, it’s going to have to be as a group. They have learned in the long offseason that individual plays gets you on “SportsCenter” but a quick trip home in the postseason. They have to match their talent with toughness and fortitude. They can’t back down or succumb when they trail in the fourth quarter.
It’s hard to go wrong when your top four scorers combine for 87 points; when you outrebound the opponent 56-46; when you force 23 turnovers; and when Cardiac Kemba heats up in the fourth quarter (as he’s expected to do). Also, when you have cohesive defense and ball movement like this in crunch time:
Not counting preseason, this was the first Celtics win since Game 1 in Milwaukee about five months ago. That’s a long time, and the Garden crowd last night was hungry and loud.
Now the Cs play at New York tonight and then not until Wednesday when they host the Bucks. Then in November, they are in Boston for five games but on the road for nine, including a Western trip.
If the Celtics are going to win 50 or more games this year, as most of us here at Red’s Army predicted, Brad Stevens will need to get his squad to consistently perform like they did last night. It might be the most challenging job of his coaching career. And we’re going to know very soon if it’s possible.
NBC Sports Boston: A. Sherrod Blakely’s Takeaways: ‘Real’ Kemba Walker appears to key Celtics comeback win over Raptors in home opener | Don’t overlook Jaylen Brown’s passing, plus other Celtics overreactions | Jaylen Brown glad Kemba Walker ‘has [his] back’
MassLive: Recap: Boston Celtics come back to beat Toronto Raptors behind Kemba Walker 112-106 | Jaylen Brown is getting really dangerous, plus seven things we learned from Boston Celtics vs. Toronto Raptors | In a test of Boston Celtics team chemistry, Kemba Walker & Jaylen Brown show just how different things are | Boston Celtics, Kemba Walker made basketball look fun again in home opener | Matt Vautour
Boston Sports Journal: Jaylen Brown gives glimpse of All-Star potential against Raptors
On Page 2: Center of attention
When the official heights for NBA players were released shortly before the start of the season, which claim to be accurate for each player without shoes, Boston Celtics rookie Grant Williams lost an inch — dropping from 6-foot-7 to 6-foot-6.
That lines up with the eye test — Williams doesn’t exactly tower over his teammates, even though he is nominally a four. But given Williams’ strength and his stocky build, many wondered over the summer whether the rookie might be able to join Boston’s carousel of big men rotating in and out of the lineup on any given night despite lacking elite height.
After Friday’s 112-106 win over the Toronto Raptors, early indicators all point to “yes.” Williams battled Marc Gasol and played the All-Star big man off the floor in the second half as the Celtics rallied from a seven-point deficit, contesting his jumpers and containing his post-up touches. Williams isn’t going to deter drivers with his height, but he’s smart with his footwork and positioning, which allows him to defend multiple positions. Williams took charges, and his energy kept him in the game until Brad Stevens went small to close the fourth quarter.
With Kanter out and Daniel Theis hobbling a bit after hurting his ankle, Williams found himself on the floor with the rest of the Celtics’ starters for long stretches in the fourth as they made their comeback. He played 22 minutes — the most of any C’s big — and it was hard to take him off the floor with the plays he was making.
While Kemba Walker, Jaylen Brown and Jayson Tatum were hitting the big shots that fueled the rally, it might not have been possible without Williams, who was more than up to the task of defending veterans Marc Gasol and Serge Ibaka. On one play, his overwhelming defense of Gasol forced him into a bad shot, which helped ignite a fast break in which Brown found Gordon Hayward for the go-ahead bucket.
“That was big time, man. Love that kid — he has great energy, super tough,” Walker said. “He wants that, he wants those battles. He wanted to guard Marc Gasol. He did an unbelievable job, and we’re gonna need that. He’s gonna have to grow up fast for us.”
Carsen Edwards, the supernova of preseason, didn’t see the floor last night, but Grant Williams did a pretty decent job representing the rookies. Besides his defense, Grant’s 4 points, 7 rebounds and 4 assists were absolutely crucial to defeating Toronto. Six of those boards were on the offensive end, leading to Boston’s total of 21 ORebs – an advantage that enabled them to win despite shooting just 38.5% from the field.
Perhaps the young man was inspired:
Or maybe he’s just that good. Watching Williams play, the description that comes to mind is “solid.” He’s intelligent, hard-working, has a great attitude, and by all accounts is the best teammate you could ever want. He’s been described as a larger version of Marcus Smart, destined for an NBA career of 10 years or more.
If Grant can repeat last night’s performance regularly – realistically, not every night, but often – he’ll be one of the steals of the draft.
Actually, he might need to do it tonight against the Knicks. Enes Kanter and Tacko Fall are injured, and Theis might be limited or out. Robert Williams and Vincent Poirier (zero minutes so far) are the only legit bigs otherwise. So if Grant Williams comes through again and helps secure a W, on the road this time, we’ll have the right to get a little hyped.
Related – NBC Sports Boston: Jaylen Brown on Celtics rookie Grant Williams: ‘Rook came out and balled’
And, finally… ‘These fans are incredible’
Walker scored 11 of his 22 points in the fourth quarter and his effort on the defensive end helped to spark the team. But Walker himself was sparked by the TD Garden crowd.
“It was everything I imagined,” Walker said of his home debut to NBC Sports Boston’s Abby Chin. “These fans are incredible. So much energy in the building. (In the) first half, I felt the energy. I was a little bit hype and the adrenaline was pumping. I just needed to calm down, but man, I just have to — I can’t say enough about my teammates, my coaching staff. They just kept me up. They kept my confidence up, kept telling me to be myself. Keep shooting the ball. I really appreciate those guys for sure.”
NBC Sports Boston: Kemba Walker was blown away by TD Garden debut
Related – The Athletic: ‘It was so fun, I had a blast out there’: Kemba Walker finally feels at home with the Celtics