Boston Celtics were better, but Brad Stevens still sees a lot of improvement ahead

NBA: Milwaukee Bucks at Boston Celtics
Boston Celtics were better, but Brad Stevens still sees a lot of improvement ahead

    Dec 23, 2020; Boston, Massachusetts, USA; Boston Celtics guard Jaylen Brown (7) attempts a basket in between Milwaukee Bucks guard Jrue Holiday (21) and forward Giannis Antetokounmpo (34) during the second half at the TD Garden. Mandatory Credit: Brian Fluharty-USA TODAY Sports

If the TD Garden had more than the Celtics front office staff sitting in the stands, it would have been rocking.

Jayson Tatum hit a wild 3-pointers to put Boston up two, Giannis Antetokounmpo missed a free throw to tie the game, and the Celtics beat the anointed best team in the East on opening night.

Surely, after Boston’s disgusting preseason performances, this called for celebration of all the ways Boston was better.

“I thought we were more structured and purposeful on offense. That’s the only area,” Brad Stevens said after the game.

Okay then.

The Celtic trotted out a double-big lineup, starting Tristan Thompson alongside Daniel Theis, in an attempt to fix some of the defensive problems of the first two preseason games, and while there were some stretches of containing Giannis Antetokounmpo, the overall defense still wasn’t up to par.

“I was really upset with how we played up to this point and I wanted to start a very, very good defensive line up,” Stevens said. “And we have to play a lot better at that end still.”

The truth of the matter is the Celtics didn’t exactly look great out of the gates. They shot poorly to start the game and they let the Milwaukee Bucks leak out and get a lot of easy baskets. They ultimately gave up 121 points on 50% shooting overall and 40% shooting on 3-pointers. That’s not a recipe for winning games. The Celtics saving grace was that they only coughed up 7 turnovers.

“We talked about it in terms of, being tough on every catch, fighting for every space, or an inch on every space, making sure you deliver the ball, taking pride in delivering the ball, realizing how you’re being defended, and take advantage of it accordingly,” Stevens said. “We already were terrible transition defensive-wise, so if we turned it over tonight it would have been a real show.”

Jayson Tatum’s game-winner was probably the second-most miraculous part of this game for the Celtics. Ahead of it is the 22 points the Celtics bench outscored Milwaukee’s by, thank almost exclusively to Jeff Teague. He had 19 points and hit all four of his 3-pointers and was able to carry the Celtics offense in the second quarter while the Celtics made a run without Tatum.

“His poise, his vision, his point guard abilities, just his playmaking and control of the flow of the game is so essential,” Jaylen Brown said, also adding praise for another unheralded Celtic. “I was proud of Marcus Smart. I think he did a great job keeping us together. He might not get the credit for this game, but his pace that he played at and his playcalling, some of the plays that he called were great. And we obviously capitalized on it. So I’m definitely looking forward to Marcus leading this team in that role, making sure that everybody’s in their spots and giving us direction. Because he’s a leader nonetheless.”

Smart only scored three points on three shots, but he had seven assists, apparently buying into his preseason promise to be less of a shooter and more of a distributor. Of course, his biggest contribution came on the defensive end, where he drew three charges on Antetokounmpo.

Ultimately the Celtics did accomplish a lot of what they set out to do. Their offensive flow ran through their two stars, with Tatum and Brown combining for 63 points. The man they hope can carry the franchise to future championships came through with the game-winning shot, and despite the obvious flaws, Boston came away with a win.

“He’s a good offensive player, got his shot up, it was a well-challenged shot, well-defended shot, I guess we’re lucky it went in,” Stevens said. “But it was a great game and presented a lot of situations that NBA basketball and playing against a good opponent provides.”

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