One game, one win, one banked-in game-winning 3 in the mug of the reigning defensive player of the year, and one thought on every Celtic that played at least one minute …
Jayson Tatum: Only the truly great players can drill the winning shot off the glass in the final second to beat a terrific opponent and then have the humility afterward to admit that he wasn’t actually trying to use the backboard. Then again, Tatum also said he played “terrible” after a 30-point night, which included 12 points in the fourth, so his standard for acknowledging his own excellence is pretty high. The funny thing is that Tatum is one of those players who you can almost tell whether he’s going to make it before he even has finished taking it; the ball just comes out of his hand a certain way on his makes, you know? .
Jaylen Brown: Jayson Tatum got to be the hero, but Brown was the Celtics’ best player Wednesday night. He started off a little out of sync – sometimes his enthusiasm leads him to play 5 miles per hour faster than he should – but then he got cooking, ripping off 10 points in final 2 minutes 32 seconds of the second quarter. He had it going from midrange, but also knocked down three 3s (including a long one off a nifty pass from Jeff Teague right before halftime), finished at the rim on several of his 13 field goals, and didn’t commit a single turnover in 38 minutes. That’s exactly how he has to play in Kemba Walker’s absence.
Jeff Teague: I liked Brad Wanamaker. I liked Shane Larkin. I think I like Teague, the veteran and current Kemba Walker stand-in, better than both of them combined. Much will be made about his shooting Wednesday night – he hit all four of his 3-point attempts en route to 19 points – and he hit enough of those change of pace flips and floaters that he tormented the Celtics with as the point guard of that excellent Hawks team in the 2016 postseason. But his biggest play – a steal from Donte DiVencenzo on the break in the final minute, with the ball deflecting off the Bucks guard’s leg out of bounds – set the stage for Tatum’s winner. Related to nothing, am I the only one that sees his No. 55 jersey and thinks of Eric Williams immediately?
Tristan Thompson. Not that he’s unfamiliar – he played 16 playoff games against the Celtics during his nine seasons in Cleveland – but it was reassuring in the opener to see he is As Advertised. He finished with 12 points and a team-high 8 rebounds in 22 minutes, flashed that half hook-shot that he can make with either hand, and gave them that Perk-like presence that’s been missing in recent years. He also got called for a ridiculous foul with .4 of a second left against Giannis, and it was at that moment that I missed Tommy Heinsohn the most of all.
Daniel Theis: We’re well aware he’s a good, hard-working, more-athletic-than-you-think player here, even if the national media only started to catch on during the Bubble Playoffs. (I’m thinking of the Inside the NBA crew there.) But he had a bit of a rough one in the opener, scoring 10 points but missing a couple of wide-open 3s (one with 4 minutes and 5 seconds left and the game tied at 113, and the other with 43 seconds left and the Bucks up 120-119). Teams are going to dare him to shoot the long one. He made 33.3 percent of his 3-pointers last year. He needs to get his percentage back up around his 38.8 from 2018-19.
Marcus Smart: He contributed 7 assists, 3 points, drew 3 charges on Giannis, added 2 blocks and 2 steals, and didn’t have a field goal. Typically crazy Smart box score that only hints at how much he impacted the game. That he took just three shots and didn’t make any means he’s going 4 for 11 from 3 in the first quarter alone against Sage Irving and the Nets on Christmas.
Semi Ojeleye: Would it be hyperbolic to say that was one of his best games in his four seasons as a Celtic? He unveiled a Eurostep for a bucket-plus-one, later fed Thompson, who had carved out some space in the paint, for a clever look away bounce-pass that I didn’t know was in his repertoire, and finished a team-best plus-20. Also: Would it be mean to suggest Aaron Nesmith should be getting some of the wing minutes that go his way?
Grant Williams: You’ll recall he began his NBA career last season by missing his first 25 3-point attempts. He figured it out along the way – he actually shot 10 for 17 from 3 in the postseason. But for a time Wednesday night it looked like he might go 1-for-25 before halftime, with the Bucks scouting report apparently still saying LET HIM LAUNCH IT AND GO GET THE REBOUND. His ceiling is as a smart, reliable eighth man on a true contender.
Robert Williams: For a player so quick and athletic, it’s bewildering how he can so often be caught two steps behind on a pick-and-roll. When he’s one step behind, he often recovers for the block, as he did against Bryn Forbes in the final minute of the third quarter while the Celtics – well, Tatum – were in the middle of a run. He got just 12 minutes and 28 seconds of playing time. We could say that’s not enough, but Brad Stevens could counter that’s what he’s earned.
Payton Pritchard. He acquitted himself well in his NBA debut, even hitting a long 3, but he also had a couple of amusing welcome-to-the-NBA moments. Not long after he checked in during the second quarter, he found himself retreating on the break with Giannis, whose shoulders now look like they are made of beskar, chugging right at him on the break. A couple of minutes later, 6-foot-7-inch Khris Middleton recognized he had the 6-foot-1 rookie on him and blew past him for 2 like a dad who decided he was done messing around in a one-on-one game against his middle-schooler kid.