Opening night in the NBA arrived on Tuesday, with the Boston Celtics and Philadelphia 76ers perhaps previewing a future Eastern Conference playoffs matchup.
It did not disappoint.
Play started out relatively even, although the contrasting styles of each team was immediately apparent. The Sixers, a bit rattled by Boston’s defense, struggled from 3-point range. Philly made up for that inequity by quickening their pace, attacking the rim and grabbing 12 points in transition in the first half alone.
What the 76ers were unable to counter was just how well Boston game-planned for their non-shooters. Markelle Fultz was not fully confident in his jumper. Ben Simmons shied away from any open opportunities, and didn’t make a basket farther than nine feet. It’s certainly not a death knell for the Sixers, but it will once again be something to watch this year.
For their part, Philadelphia’s defense did what it was designed to do against the Celtics in the first half. Boston grabbed 16 points from mid-range, and while they shot a healthy percentage, that was certainly not where coach Brad Stevens wanted his offense to operate.
As the third quarter opened, it was the Celtics who began to pull away thanks to help from its bench. Marcus Morris dropped 16 points, much of it in the third and fourth quarters. Terry Rozier added 11 points, along with eight rebounds and an assist.
Boston opened the half with a 30-point third quarter, followed by allowing the 76ers just 21 points in the fourth. The best defense in the league from a year ago, the Celtics put the clamps on a Sixers offense that just didn’t seem to have enough counterpunches ready for Stevens’ plan.
Simmons finished with an impressive stat line of 23 points, 15 rebounds, eight assists and four blocks. For Boston, Jayson Tatum led the way with 23 points, nine rebounds, and three assists.
The Celtics took home the very first win of the season, 105-87, over Philadelphia.
Meanwhile for Boston, the stories that most have been waiting to read are those of Kyrie Irving and Gordon Hayward, both returning from injury. The two are Boston’s biggest stars, and have been stuck in the training room as the team around them rallied to become a playoff favorite.
To that end, neither performed particularly well on Tuesday.
Irving and Hayward shot a combined a 6-of-26 from the floor, adding single-digit rebounds. Hayward didn’t record an assist, and the Celtics were instead led by Tatum, Al Horford, and Marcus Morris.
Even with the middling performance of their most prominent stars, the Celtics showed us two things on Tuesday night. First, Boston’s defense is still for real. The team with the best defensive rating last season held the Sixers to just 19 percent shooting from 3-point line, and Stevens’ defensive strategy against the likes of Simmons, Fultz, and Embiid was impressive. Simmons and Embiid personally thrived in the box score, but their teammates weren’t able to benefit off of them thanks to Boston’s rotational prowess.
And while it’s just one game into this young season, the Celtics also showed that there is a clear delineation between them and Philadelphia at this juncture. Many believe the Celtics to be a Finals-ready team, and that the Sixers have more growing to do. Philadelphia clearly has some significant roster weaknesses — particularly around shooting — but the sheer depth in Boston is what separates them from their competition.
We will have to watch what happens with Irving and Hayward, and whether they can get stronger as time goes on. Hayward mentioned that he still feels a little odd jumping off of the leg he injured during the first game of last year. But if he both he and Irving come on as the regular season months roll along, they will certainly be additive to what is the best roster in the East.