Celtics

10 takeaways as Jaylen Brown shines, but Celtics fall to Knicks in season opener

"I wish we could have gotten [Udoka] a win in his first game as a coach."

Celtics Knicks takeaways
Boston Celtics guard Jaylen Brown (7) in action during first period NBA game against New York Knicks, Wednesday Oct. 20, 2021, in New York. AP Photo/Frank Franklin II

Here are the takeaways as the Celtics fell to the Knicks 138-134 in a double-OT season-opening thriller.

1. Jaylen Brown’s 46 points — the most ever scored in a Celtics season opener — were impressive not just because he dropped a career-high 24 hours after being cleared to return from COVID-19, but also because of the variety of baskets he scored. Brown caught fire from 3-point range, but he also buried a tough turnaround jumper and got to the rim in the first quarter — beating defenders off the bounce and in transition with good body control. 

Brown looked like he had good body control as well when he attacked the rim late in the fourth quarter only to be whistled for a charge for crashing into Kemba Walker. On replay, Brown appeared to avoid hitting Walker in the chest, and Jeff Van Gundy on the ESPN broadcast thought the play should have been a no-call. 

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Ime Udoka told reporters after the game the Celtics assistants didn’t believe the call would be overturned and the Celtics didn’t want to lose a timeout. He might be right that the call wouldn’t have been overturned if only because — as Van Gundy noted — it probably should have been a play on rather than a blocking foul. Officials can’t change a charge to a no-call. 

In any case, Brown was excellent on Wednesday. 

2. Jayson Tatum’s decision to iso and attack at the end of the first overtime period brought to mind his iso 3-pointer on Giannis Antetokounmpo about a year ago during last season’s opener … except that this time, Tatum missed everything. 

On a night when nothing went Tatum’s way (7-for-30 overall, 4-for-20 in the second half, 2-for-8 in OT), it’s hard not to wonder what might have happened if Brown went 1-on-1 instead or if Tatum dished to Smart instead of forcing an impossibly difficult shot over R.J. Barrett’s contest. Smart already made one clutch jumper at the end of regulation. Brown — while exhausted — had already poured in a career high.

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“He carried us tonight,” Tatum said of Brown after the game. “The plays he was making, the shots he was hitting, he was unbelievable.”

Tatum is well on his way to superstardom, and superstars almost always take the last shot in part because they can create a look. But Brown is a star too and probably could have created a look as good as Tatum’s in that scenario.

3. Tatum isn’t going to shoot 7-for-30 often, but he does every once in a while, and his next step might need to be eliminating these semi-regular stinker performances. Much was made of the muscle he added this offseason, which was supposed to help him rumble to the basket and draw free throws — two things that would really help on an off night.

“I feel like I had a thousand wide-open shots that I normally make,” Tatum said. “Today just wasn’t the case. I feel like I got some great looks and great opportunities, but sometimes they just don’t go in.”

The Celtics probably would have won if Tatum was slightly better (or if Dennis Schröder shot better than 5-for-16 from the floor). The game was supremely entertaining especially in the final minutes of regulation and OT, but the Celtics have to feel like they missed an opportunity. 

4. Julius Randle (35 points, eight rebounds, nine assists) started the game by hitting a tough step-back 3-pointer over Grant Williams, then buried a jab-step triple about a minute later. He bullied any smaller defender the Celtics threw at him until Rob Williams finally found some success against him late in the game. 

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Still, Randle looks ready to prove that last year’s All-NBA selection was no fluke, which is huge for the Knicks. 

Also big: New York’s hyper-athletic front line. Mitchell Robinson, Obi Toppin and even Jericho Sims are an embarrassment of high-flying riches.

5. We can’t know for sure until Al Horford returns from COVID-19 protocols, but the guess here is that a new double-big lineup is coming as soon as he does, because Rob Williams looks ready for big-time minutes. Williams was more ground-bound than usual (something to keep an eye on?), but he blocked five shots, pulled down 10 rebounds and went 5-for-5 from the floor and 6-for-8 from the free throw line, tallying 16 points. Crucially, he also played 45 healthy minutes and committed just one foul. 

When given a chance over the last two years, Williams showed he is more than just a leaper. His basketball instincts are solid, and when he stays in control, his defense is an enormous asset.

“Just trying to watch my fouls a little bit,” he said after the game. “As far as the [45] minutes, it’s what I’ve been wanting, right? So mentally I was ready, prepared for a third overtime if that was the case. But it’s for sure something I’ve been wanting, so I’m ready.”

6. The Celtics got very mixed results from their youth squad. Despite a few ugly turnovers, Romeo Langford once again looked ready to compete for a rotation spot with 10 points and three rebounds. He buried two confident 3-pointers, hit another jumper from the corner, dropped in a sweeping floater driving a close out and even poked the ball free from Julius Randle when the powerful forward bodied him in the post.

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Aaron Nesmith and Payton Pritchard, meanwhile, were a combined 0-for-7 and never found any semblance of rhythm. It’s clear Udoka trusts all three players  — his rotation, even in a double-OT season opener with Horford and Josh Richardson (migraine) out, was only nine players deep — but only Langford really contributed.

7. The Celtics tallied 34 assists on 48 field goals. Udoka promised more ball movement before the season, and while the Celtics looked a little like their old inconsistent selves on Wednesday, passes certainly did zip around the floor. 

8. The Celtics let Evan Fournier get going in overtime in part because they changed defensive schemes, according to Udoka. After switching positions 1-5 throughout the game, they started switching 1-4 to leave Rob Williams on Randle. Evidently, that was a confusing wrinkle — after getting caught under a screen that resulted in one of Fournier’s triples, Brown barked at Williams who yelled back. It seems Williams was right. 

“Some of our guys just messed up the coverage,” Udoka said after the game. “Have to be more communicative when we switch it up late in the game. Knew we made a few mistakes that kept them in the game in the first overtime.”

9. We can’t know how Udoka will perform as an actual coach throughout the season quite yet, but his candid answer regarding blown coverages was refreshing after years of polite-but-firm stonewalling from Brad Stevens. From a media perspective, here’s hoping that continues, because Udoka’s answer was enlightening and educational.

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10. One return on Ime Udoka, however: The Celtics seem to like him quite a bit.

“Ime was calm,” Brown said. “He was excited, you could tell. You could see it in his eyes. The reason why I wanted to play tonight was because I didn’t want to miss his opening game. I didn’t want to do that. I wanted to come out there and be there for our coach. And we fell short today, but Ime, he was resilient. ATOs were great. I think he did a really good job tonight.”

“He was great,” Tatum added. “I wish we could have gotten him a win in his first game as a coach. But we’ll try to get him one on Friday.”

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