Brad Stevens isn’t one for moral victories generally, so it was hard to ignore the tenor of his comments after a 119-112 loss to the Bucks on opening night for the Celtics in Orlando.
“Our compete level was good. There’s a lot of good things to build off of and a lot of things we can learn from.”
“We had a lot more good things than bad.”
“I’m way more encouraged than discouraged. We haven't played for four months, we played a really good team.”
Someone who may not have seen the game or box score may have even thought the Celtics won this one with the way the head coach sounded afterward.
It's easier to understand Stevens' optimism though when you step back. The Celtics entered Friday’s matchup trying to figure out where they stood in the Eastern Conference hierarchy after a four-month layoff. The Bucks were not at their best with several key contributors out of the lineup (Eric Bledsoe, Pat Connaughton, Marvin Williams) but they were jacked up to reassert their dominance on a national stage, something we saw from the Lakers Thursday night in a matchup against the Clippers.
For the third time this regular season, the Celtics showed they could hang with the East favorites, even in the face of adversity. The C’s have fallen behind by 15 points in all three head-to-head matchups so far. They rallied from down 19 to win the first game, got within four points in the second (after trailing by 27) and had multiple fourth-quarter leads in their final matchup on Friday night after facing a 17-2 deficit before Giannis and questionable officiating sent them to the loss.
“I’m just proud of the effort to fight back,” Gordon Hayward said. “We battled the whole game. It was a physical game. A lot of fouls, just a battle back and forth. They made the plays at the end of the game and we did not. We certainly can play a lot better and there’s a lot we can learn by going back and looking at the film.”
Beyond the ugly start, there was a long list of trouble spots that could have sidetracked the C’s in this contest. Kemba Walker being limited to 20 minutes left the C’s backcourt shorthanded early in the second half once he hit his limit. Throw in Jaylen Brown racking up five quick fouls by midway through the third quarter and the C’s were suddenly left looking at a depleted lineup lacking creators for much of the third quarter and another potential double-digit deficit.
The man on the offense who is supposed to do the heavy lifting with Walker and Brown on the sidelines struggled through one of the ugliest offensive performances in a Celtics uniform as well. The Bucks sparred Tatum from posting his worst shooting night of his career in the box score by gifting him two points in the first quarter on an accidental tip-in. Otherwise, the All-Star forward was a complete mess, going a horrific 1-of-17 from the field over his 32 minutes.
The jump shot never got going and Tatum’s forays into the paint looked like the guy we saw in October who failed to find his touch from close range. Brook Lopez (six blocks) sent Tatum’s shots packing regularly but there was just no rhythm all night.
“I mean, he got some decent looks off pick and rolls,” Stevens said. “They did a good job loading up to him. They did a good job at the rim on him. He'll go back and look at it. He had a couple nights like that early in the season, too, and the least of our concerns is him finding the net. That's what he does. So he'll be fine.”
That’s a fair assessment by the head coach of the big picture here for his star. Normally, a disastrous shooting night for Tatum plus a short minutes limit for Walker, foul trouble for Brown and 36 points for Giannis Antetokunmpo on 70 percent shooting would be a recipe for a blowout loss against the NBA’s best team.
Yet, the Celtics overcame those obstacles to stay engaged in a tight game until the final minute thanks to supporting pieces that are going to be needed to take down the Bucks in any postseason scenario
It started with