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Celtics Win Down Two Starters Again Over Wembanyama’s Spurs

BOSTON — Jayson Tatum and Jaylen Brown scored on the first two possessions, and Boston held San Antonio to 25 first quarter points, the sixth time they limited to an opponent to under 30 over their past seven quarters. The most emphatic crowd reactions during a game where the Celtics built a 30-point lead, for the eighth time over their last 17 games, went to Wembanyama and Jordan Walsh, who made his NBA debut with three minutes left in the fourth.

The night began with a Wembanyama alley-oop flush from Jeremy Sochan and ended with Walsh trying a three for his first NBA points, missing to the remaining crowd’s disappointment. Moments later, they rose to their feet in ovation, Boston ahead 117-98, securing a 20-0 start at TD Garden. Joe Mazzulla declined to answer questions about Wembanyama after, saying he didn’t care, but spoke at length about the Celtics’ rookie.

“I didn’t know they did that until now,” he said, reacting to the 1986 Celtics’ 40-1 standard at home. “Chasing things that are out of our control are really hard. Honestly, it hasn’t been a goal of ours to go 20-0. The goal has been build a connection and an identity with the city and with the team, to where they give us this lift and this level of support that they have, and that we play a certain type of way, Celtics basketball … there are a ton of records, traditions, great players and if you chase them all, you’re bound to let yourself down or have an unhealthy relationship with success.”

Boston started the night big, with Luke Kornet and Al Horford in place of Derrick White and Kristaps Porzingis, against Wembanyama and Julian Champagnie. Kornet won the tip-off against Wembanyama, who followed with his dunk and a step-back jumper over Horford on his way to 10 first quarter points. He scored 27 in total with five rebounds and a block on 10-for-19 shooting, Kornet keeping up with six points, nine rebounds, four assists, a steal and three blocks in his own addition to Celtics history.

Wembanyama impressed, though also exited the game sounding more enthusiastic about what he saw in two games against the Celtics than addressing San Antonio’s 7-33 start or another back-to-back he’d sit out. He scored 27 points in 27 minutes, beginning the night averaging 24.7 points per 36 minutes. Boston, down two starters, still out-scored the Spurs by 14 points during Wembanyama’s minutes. The Celtics’ ability to attack in waves stood out to the rookie.

“The depth,” he told CLNS Media. “Everybody can hoop on that team and everyone’s a threat on the court. At the same time, they all know their roles, they’re all willing to share the ball, from the most important, franchise guys to the role players. Everybody is ready to compete and make the sacrifices, I can see that. I can see that more compared to the last years as well, just watching them. I remember watching them in the Finals with Golden State a few years ago. I can see the growth.”

Perhaps more impressive than the Celtics’ undefeated start at home, which now shattered the 1986 team’s 17-0 opening stretch, was the eighth unique starting line Boston started to begin the San Antonio game. They courted four different starter combinations over their last five home wins, beating the Rockets with their typical starting five, beating Minnesota with Horford relieving Porzingis and sneaking past Toronto without Horford or Kristaps.

Horford and Kornet entered with experience playing together, 109 minutes, helping them acclimate to a starting role along with Neemias Queta’s presence in relief. Payton Pritchard slid into the backup guard role and scored 12 points with four assists and zero turnovers. Oshae Brissett and Sam Hauser both added seven points, while Hauser’s minutes led the Celtics at +18. Boston’s bench doesn’t score with the best second units. Their ability to slide up into the next rotation spot ranks alongside any other factor in the team’s 32-9 start.

“Luke was great. I think he’s another guy who’s getting better and better,” Mazzulla said. “I think he’s one of our, over the last three years … our best overall defenders. His ability to communicate, change matchups, guard different guys, guard different actions. The him and Al lineups are great, because those guys defend at a high, high level and protect the rim. We got off to a good start because of that double-big lineup … we play a certain level. That’s the environment you want to create, and I’ve said it to the guys, regardless of who’s in, who’s out, I think we have a chance to win any game because of who they are and it’s gotta stay that way.”

While White’s absence, as the NBA’s +/- leader, entered the night 1-2, Boston managed a 2-1 record without Tatum or Jrue Holiday. The Celtics won all three games that Brown sat and the team continues to succeed while managing Horford (5-2) and Porzingis (9-2) in back-to-backs. Mazzulla credited Pritchard and Hauser’s defense, Queta’s screening and rebounding, along with Kornet’s passing and defensive versatility as reasons for their adaptability to larger roles. The Celtics also won home games where Dalano Banton and Lamar Stevens started, the latter playing his first significant minutes when Kornet got scratched in layup lines.

It helps to integrate into starting units that include three or four regular contributors. Especially when, like on Wednesday, two of them are Tatum and Brown.

Wembanyama took a seat for the closing stretch of the first, where Brissett, Horford, Hauser and Queta scored. Hauser hit a post fadeaway. Brissett later drove baseline and kicked to Pritchard for three instead of shooting a layup in traffic, one reason Boston might buy into him becoming its big wing that Brad Stevens mentioned at the deadline. While Walsh won’t fit that profile this year, Mazzulla stressed a turning point in his rookie development — understanding the areas of impact that’ll eventually get him on the floor in Boston. The things that sent the remaining crowd into a frenzy with the Celtics already ahead by 20 on a weeknight. Four rebounds.

“It’s definitely been a thought since the first day,” Walsh told CLNS Media. “But after coming and spending Christmas with the guys, I had to re-focus myself to know that ok, it’s more than going out and scoring. You have to do more that translates to this team. So that’s been the focus ever since then, I’ve honed in on that and hopefully the coaches hopefully are seeing that … and liking what I’m doing.”

Bobby Manning

Boston Celtics beat reporter for CLNS Media and host of the Garden Report Celtics Post Game Show. NBA national columnist for Boston Sports Journal. Contributor to SB Nation's CelticsBlog. Host of the Dome Theory Sports and Culture Podcast on CLNS. Syracuse University 2020.

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