Celtics

5 takeaways as Aaron Nesmith scores 23 in Celtics loss to Magic

The Celtics are now 2-1 in the preseason.

Celtics Magic takeaways
Aaron Nesmith takes a shot over Mo Bamba. The Celtics lost to the Magic 103-102 Wednesday night. AP Photo/John Raoux

Here are the takeaways as the Celtics fell to the Magic 103-102 despite a big night from Aaron Nesmith.

The big picture

The Celtics started without any of the veteran members of their rotation — mostly for rest, although both Al Horford and Jaylen Brown remain out after testing positive for COVID-19. The Celtics’ second unit held the Magic second unit at bay for two quarters before opening up a six-point lead after three.

The opposing third units battled through an entertaining fourth quarter, and the Celtics appeared to be in a good position to win after Theo Pinson drew a foul and made both free throws to build a one-point lead. But Jeff Dowtin’s turnaround jumper just before the buzzer gave the Magic a 103-102 victory.

Star of the game

Aaron Nesmith — 23 points, 8-for-16 shooting, 4-for-8 from 3, four assists

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Nesmith submitted an impressive, multi-layered offensive performance and made another strong case for his inclusion in the Celtics’ rotation.

Takeaways

1. Before his rookie season, Nesmith was known as a spot-up shooter first and foremost — a fluid athlete who could come off screens and square himself quickly.

Nesmith is certainly shooting quickly, and he showed elements of his spot-up ability on Wednesday.

But Nesmith has the potential to be a scorer in several different ways — many of which weren’t immediately evident coming out of college. On Wednesday, he used a quick first step to beat Mo Bamba and slipped a layup off the glass and in. He hit a mid-range turnaround reminiscent of the shots Gordon Hayward used to pour in. He buried a pair of 3-pointers late in the third quarter off a single dribble which shed his defender.

“He was extremely aggressive [at Summer League] and carried that into open gym and training camp, and he gets an opportunity with those guys sitting out tonight and plays very well,” Celtics coach Ime Udoka said. “Very good complementary piece. We talk of our young guys taking that leap and progression, and I think him, Romeo, Grant and Payton have all done that. Proud of the work he puts in. See it every day, and he took advantage of it tonight. Plays very confident and free, which is what we want him to do with those guys sitting out.”

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Payton Pritchard justifiably stole headlines at Summer League as one of the best players on the floor, but Nesmith’s solid performance in Las Vegas has continued into the preseason.

2. Pritchard’s performance carried over too. The second-year guard didn’t play in the second half after taking a shot to the nose — and his nose is likely broken, per Ime Udoka — but his offense continues to impress.

Importantly, Pritchard showed flashes as a pull-up shooter inside the arc. The Celtics will likely ask him to space the floor this season, opening the paint for Jayson Tatum and Jaylen Brown, but as Pritchard develops, his handle should allow him to get where he wants to go. If he can score at all three levels, his ceiling is pretty interesting.

3. Garrison Matthews seems to have become the consensus favorite to win the Celtics’ final roster spot, but Jabari Parker made a case for himself in the first half with a flurry of buckets. He finished with 10 points on 4-for-9 shooting.

Whether a good preseason performance is enough for Parker to overcome Matthews’ easily translatable skill set as a shooter remains to be seen, but Udoka praised Parker’s reliability after the game.

“Jabari is obviously a veteran who has been around for a long time,” Udoka said. “I say this a lot with guys like Al, Josh, Dennis, whoever it may be: We know what we have with Jabari. He’s a spark plug that comes off the bench, plays multiple positions, and defends multiple positions. A guy that we feel on a night like tonight with guys sitting out can provide instant offense and he did that.”

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4. Grant Williams is noticeably skinnier and the improvements to his game show. Williams was always a high-IQ player, and he finished with four assists as well as three steals. The steals in particular were a result of his timing and defensive reads.

Still, the biggest test is offense — particularly 3-point shooting. The Celtics need a slimmed-down Williams to space the floor like a wing/forward. If he can do it, he’ll be hard to keep out of the rotation.

5. An important question: What if the Celtics’ young guys — particularly Nesmith, Langford, and Pritchard — are just good? If Danny Ainge hit on those selections, he gave the Celtics a crucial parting gift in his final two drafts as President of Basketball Operations.

The Celtics close their preseason on Friday at 6:30 p.m., taking on the Miami Heat.

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