After a tumultuous week that saw the Boston Celtics postpone three games due to contact tracing related to COVID-19, the team finally returned to action on Friday night against the Orlando Magic. Despite a diminished roster that saw bench players Jeff Teague and Grant Williams assume starting roles, the Celtics still managed to down the similarly-diminished Magic on the evening, 124-97.
Cleared from the league’s Health and Safety Protocol, Jaylen Brown took the leading role for the shorthanded Celtics in their return to play. Despite playing just 25 minutes in the blowout, he led the team with 21 points and eight assists — the latter of which tied his career-high. Supporting him were a resurgent Jeff Teague (17 points, 50% shooting), Payton Pritchard (16 points, 4-of-8 from three) and Marcus Smart (14 points, team-high +28). For the Magic, Aaron Gordon scored 17, Nikola Vucevic and Dwayne Bacon scored 15, and Khem Birch added a 12-point, 12-rebound double-double off the bench, but their hard-fought performance simply faltered late in the evening.
The week-long layoff didn’t seem to affect the Celtics’ rhythm as they began their return to the court. From the jump, they showed a comfortable proficiency on both ends of the court, hitting six of their first nine shots and forcing three early Orlando turnovers. Brown swiped an errant Magic pass to create a one-man fast break opportunity, prompting an early Steve Clifford timeout.
Despite Boston’s two-way proficiency in the early going, the Magic managed to tread water behind the play of longtime stalwart Vucevic and first-round rookie Cole Anthony, who combined for 14 points in the opening frame. Anthony in particular seemed to find a groove very quickly in this game. He opened one of the hottest starts of his rookie season by connecting on his first four shots of the night, even beating Brown off the dribble on a couple occasions. The Celtics lead by six entering the second quarter, 34-28.
Orlando continued to hang tough in the opening minutes of the second quarter, holding the Boston lead mostly steady. Aaron Nesmith, seeing some of his most extended minutes of the season thus far, struggled defensively, and Orlando took advantage. He committed two shooting fouls in the early minutes of the second quarter, putting Gary Clark and Gordon on the line, who converted three of four free throws as a result.
Thus would remain the status quo for much of the second quarter. The Celtics repeatedly pushed their lead beyond double-digits, only for the Magic to find a way to keep it within reach. Brown’s return to the floor provided a spark for Boston; for the first half, he lead all Celtics with 14 points and six assists. After a successful Brad Stevens challenge to overturn a potential three-point play, the Celtics would enter halftime leading by 12, 60-48.
By now, you likely won’t be surprised to hear that the second half began following a similar rhythm to the first. The Celtics continued their attempts to push their lead, and the Magic continued to find ways to keep the game within reach. With eight minutes remaining in the quarter, Brown hit a long pull-up three against a mismatch with Vucevic to stretch the Boston lead to 13, only for Orlando to rally once again, quickly cutting their deficit back to single-digits.
Brown continued to power the Celtics forward, both as a scorer and a facilitator. He tied his career high for assists (8) with four minutes remaining in the third quarter on a dish to Pritchard for a corner three. With just under three minutes to play, Anthony suffered a scary injury, running headfirst into Daniel Theis in an inadvertent collision. He remained on the ground for a few moments before checking out of the game. Thankfully, he would eventually return to play late in the fourth quarter.
The waning moments of the third quarter were when the talent disparity between Boston and Orlando started to show its head. The Orlando offense began to stagnate, while the Celtics started to make inroads towards stretching their lead. The Celtics entered the fourth quarter with a strong 16-point lead, 88-72.
The Celtics’ lead evolved from “strong” to “commanding” at the start of the fourth quarter, as they went on a 13-0 run to open the frame in just the first two minutes. Semi Ojeleye converted a pair of free throws (part of his 18-point night), and Javonte Green finished off a three-point play (10 points for him) to push the Celtics’ lead closer and closer to 30. A three from Pritchard with 10 minutes to play forced a Clifford timeout, but at that point, it was mostly a formality. Tacko Fall hit what looked to be a three late in the fourth quarter, but it was unfortunately ruled a two-pointer after it was determined his foot was on the line.
Boston and Orlando were both dramatically diminished from their full-strength selves in this game, for very different reasons. Both teams showed how the many absences affected their performance, but in the end, the Celtics’ superior depth won out. With the win, the Celtics advance their conference-leading record to 8-3, and look ahead to a Sunday afternoon tilt at home against the New York Knicks at 12 pm EST on NBA TV.