Amir Johnson prepares for opening tip against Philadelphia’s Joel Embiid Tuesday night in Amherst. (Mike Petraglia/WEEI.com)
AMHERST — The growth spurt is officially underway.
With expectations sky high entering the preseason, the Celtics didn’t disappoint Tuesday night, showing off a new-look roster that is loaded with offensive options and tenacious defense.
Avery Bradley and Jae Crowder each scored 11 points in the first half while Al Horford made his debut, scoring eight points in a 92-89 loss to the injury-plagued Sixers in front of a sparse 4,532 fans at the Mullins Center. The game was officially a home preseason game for Philadelphia, as their parent company, Comcast/Spectacor manages the building. But nearly every fan was cheering for the Celtics.
Jaylen Brown fired up the crowd with several athletic moves, including a one-handed jam late in the fourth to bring the Celtics close. The first-rounder out of Cal finished with eight points. Isaiah Thomas also had 11 points in his 19 minutes.
Terry Rozier led the Celtics with 12 points.
The Celtics showed their intensity on defense to the very last possession. Marcus Smart forced a Philadelphia turnover with 12 seconds left on the sideline, giving Boston a chance to tie. Smart missed a fadeaway three from the left wing with six seconds remaining and the loose ball went out of bounds to Philadelphia. Then after a Smart foul, the Sixers tried to inbound but turned the ball over, giving Boston one final chance with 3.6 seconds left. Jordan Mickey missed a three with one second left to end the game.
With just under three minutes left in the third quarter, a loud “Let’s Go Celtics” chant broke out.
And early on, they had plenty to cheer.
The Celtics started what figures to be a lineup that could start opening night on Oct. 26 against the Nets at TD Garden. Isaiah Thomas and Avery Bradley were the guards, Crowder and Horford were the forwards and Amir Johnson started at center and won the opening tip from Joel Embiid, making his first NBA appearance of any kind after two seasons dealing with chronic foot issues.
Horford knocked down his first shot as a member of the Celtics, a 19-foot jumper from the foul line extended on the left side just 12 seconds in and Avery Bradley hit consecutive threes as the Celtics raced out to a 25-9 lead.
With their starters and a rotation of Marcus Smart, Terry Rozier and Jaylen Brown off the bench, the Celtics dominated the first half, taking a 43-31 halftime lead.
With the Celtics leading, 63-53, on a James Young pull-up jumper late in the third, the Sixers scored the next 18 points to take a 71-63 lead midway through the fourth.
Brown showed the fans why the Celtics drafted him in the first round with an electrifying Tomahawk one-handed jam with just over three minutes left in the fourth. He followed that up with a spinning reverse layup moments later to bring the Celtics within one, 83-82, before the Sixers responded with a three.
Before the game, Celtics coach Brad Stevens said the most important part of the preseason will be watching how his team grows during the three weeks leading up to the season opener Oct. 26.
The Celtics return to action Thursday night in Charlotte with a game against the Hornets. Their first official preseason home game is Saturday afternoon at 3:30 p.m. at Mohegan Sun Arena in Connecticut against the Hornets.