Winslow Townson/USA Today Sports

Celtics 94, Hornets 82: New Big Three debuts with a pass-happy night

Ty Anderson
October 02, 2017 - 11:49 pm

Rarely, if ever, has the first game of a four-game preseason slate come with the weight of Monday’s otherwise inconsequential game between the Celtics and Hornets.

But these Celtics -- with a near 80 percent roster turnover from what they were a year ago when they won 53 games for the East’s top regular-season record -- have a lot to prove before they can become the juggernaut most have projected them to be. That begins with the team’s two offseason superstar imports -- the max contract-signing Gordon Hayward and Cav-turned-Celtic Kyrie Irving -- proving they can play together.

And in what can only be good news for the Celtics, their first attempt at proving just that left a nearly full TD Garden buzzing for the opening 24 minutes of a 94-82 win, too.

With a starting five that featured Irving and Hayward in the backcourt, Jaylen Brown starting as a forward, and with Al Horford and Aron Baynes as their bigs, the Celtics came out flying, and at one point opened a 10-point lead in the first quarter.

That lead, which the Hornets whittled down to three by the end of the opening 12 minutes of action, came as a direct result of a pass-happy offense that consistently found guys with space and clear looks, and three makes from the 25-year-old Irving.

It also helped that Celtics coach Brad Stevens found a way to not pull both Hayward and Irving off the floor at the same time at any point, with each player staying on for prolonged stretches, and then leading the offense up court in the other’s absence.

“It was awesome,” Irving, who buried his first shot, an 18-foot jumper with an assist from Baynes, said of his preseason debut on the Garden parquet. “It was beautiful to be a part of, beautiful to watch. Purposeful cuts, understanding what we’re trying to do offensively and defensively, which is executing at a high level.”

The C’s can do much more (and more efficiently), though, and Stevens knows it.

“It was kind of like I anticipated,” Stevens said of his new-look team’s first real game. “There were a lot of moments we can improve off of. But these guys — in practice and as we’ve kind of grown together real briefly over the last seven days — have shown a lot of desire to play together, work together, play hard together, and defensively especially. We have a lot to build off of, offensively we have to get a lot better.”

But with the newness of literally everything with these Celtics right now, an oversharing, borderline All-Star Game approach was almost to be expected in this team’s first game.

“I just think that’s a learning curve,” Stevens said. “One of the things we’re trying to do is not call a lot right now. We’re trying to play together and learn how to play together.”

While such a passing game could at times present problems for Stevens’ group, especially if and when you see some of their legitimate stars pass up good shots for the unknown of an extra pass, you also saw the perks of its unpredictability.

This was certainly the case for Horford, who finished the night with seven points, including makes on two of his three attempts from downtown. The punishing Baynes, brought here for his defense and not his offense, was another beneficiary of their passing game, with a five-for-eight night and starter-high 10 points in 18:03 of play.

“We want to make that we’re getting good looks every time, finding the right matchups, finding the right guys so the right guy scores at the right time,” Hayward, who finished his night with makes on two of six shots and five defensive rebounds, said. “We have a lot of smart basketball players, [and] that’ll help us out offensively and defensively.”

“I think Brad gives us enough freedom individually and as a group to make plays and be who we are,” Irving, with nine points and three assists by the night’s end, said of the C’s pass-heavy attack. “Sometimes we even got into a span of making the extra, extra pass and when you’re with a group like that you know you’re playing with some great guys.”

“You’re trying to build a sharing mindset, a high-motor mindset at both ends of the floor,” said Stevens. “So far they’ve really tried, it’s just a matter of getting a little bit crisper.”

And maybe in the case of a few new stars, being a little more selfish.

The Celtics return to the court Friday night in Philadelphia.

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