The NBA rang the opening bell for the 2018-19 season in Boston last night, though from the first few minutes of the Celtics’ game against the Philadelphia 76ers, it wasn’t overly apparent whether this was regular season or preseason basketball. Things were frenetic and sloppy early, with missed layups and turnovers marring the proceedings. A fast-paced game throughout would have suited the 76ers, who are at their best when Ben Simmons is doing his best LeBron James impression in transition, but the Celtics were quickly able to wrestle control of the pace of the game. From there, the game played out in a remarkably similar fashion to the five-game series we saw in May.
In general, there’s little reason to overreact to the first of 82 regular season games for each team in the opening contest of the season. Players are still working their way into full game shape, especially now that the preseason is shorter than it was in previous years. However, this game provided quite a bit of intrigue, as both teams were reintegrating important pieces into their respective squads. For Boston, early returns on Kyrie Irving and Gordon Hayward as they recover from injury are going to be important to note; for Philadelphia, how Markelle Fultz looks after a summer of working with famed trainer Drew Hanlen helps to set the stage for what this 76ers team can be for the next several years as a championship contender.
For both teams, these early questions remain just that – none of the Irving/Hayward/Fultz trio looked particularly good. Irving had a poor game and generally looked just a hair out of shape, but he was still clearly the best of this injury-riddled threesome. The shots he normally makes didn’t go down against Philadelphia, but there’s no reason to think that will continue. In a more well-rounded offense that features so many high-level shot creators and makers, it’s worth wondering whether Irving will be happy with fewer touches, but those answers won’t reveal themselves until much later in the year.
Boston did run a couple of quick-hitting plays for Irving, including a simple Horns Quick Flare set to take advantage of Philadelphia’s switching defense:
Nothing complex here – Irving enters the ball to Hayward on the left elbow, jogs down as if he’s going through the motions of a normal Horns set (in which he might screen for Jaylen Brown in the right corner), then cuts back to the perimeter behind a screen from Jayson Tatum. Joel Embiid switches out to Irving late and the Celtics get an open three-pointer from one of their better shooters. It doesn’t go down, but even simple action like this created an advantage situation for Boston.
Hayward, by comparison, was clearly not himself. Still working back from that gruesome leg break suffered in the 2017 season opener, his explosion laterally and vertically was mostly non-existent, which showed itself whenever he got into the paint. It may still be some time before Hayward is back in the neighborhood of where he was pre-injury, but the Celtics can afford to be patient with his return. He played just 25 minutes, the fewest of the starting unit, and didn’t start the second half, as head coach Brad Stevens favored Aron Baynes in that spot instead.
There were a couple of areas where Hayward looked comfortable. He’s a smart defender and played Simmons well when the two were matched up. Hayward’s four steals were indicative of the kind of defense he played against Simmons and indicative of the overall strategy the Celtics employed against both Simmons and Embiid – Boston played off both and hands in passing lanes, especially on post entry passes. Philadelphia badly struggled with their entry passing in this game, made even more difficult by the lack of spacing provided by Simmons and Fultz. On the other end of the floor, Hayward didn’t have much going but was able to hit a few pull-up mid-range jumpers.
Of the three players returning from serious ailments, Fultz did the least to assuage worries. After a full season working through problems with his shoulder and the unforeseen mental issues that accompanied the injury, the most optimistic among us had hoped to see Fultz look similar to the player he was at Washington that made him the runaway No. 1 prospect in the 2017 draft. Instead, it was more of the same from the young guard – he was incredibly hesitant to shoot the ball from any distance and certainly wasn’t spacing the floor to the three-point line like the 76ers hope he will be able to do. Playing Simmons and Fultz together at this point is simply a spacing disaster, neither player is guarded on the weak side and the pairing gives defenses too much easy help. Boston is more aggressive with their help than most teams due to their confidence in their rotations and athleticism to close back out to the perimeter, but it’s going to be a problem Philadelphia will have to solve.
When he did go up confidently, his mid-range jumper looked decent, even if it didn’t go in consistently in this particular contest. This pull-up in traffic was impressive:
However, those plays were fewer and further between than we wanted to see from him and the lack of confidence in his outside shot led to significant problems. Even when he had an advantage and an open shot, he eschewed it and generally looked to be as deep in his own head as he’s ever been.
Issues with Irving and Hayward should work themselves out over the next month or two as both players get back into full game shape and figure out what their bodies can and can’t do after their injuries. Fultz’s problems run deeper – even after a full summer of what was reportedly very good progress on the jumper, he reverted right back to the player in a full-blown crisis of confidence against the Celtics. The 76ers have the luxury of being able to bring him along throughout the regular season in the hopes that he can contribute in April and May, but there should be significant worries within the Philadelphia camp that Fultz will need another summer to work through his mental and physical issues.