BOSTON — Kemba Walker and Jaylen Brown exploded from their seats and screamed about as loud as anyone inside a delirious TD Garden. Behind them, Marcus Smart clambered onto their vacant bench chairs and threw his hands to the sky, nearly tumbling over in his giddiness.
“I was just trying to be the same height as Tacko [Fall],” cracked Smart, referencing the 7-foot-7 big man whose second slam of the night turned the Celtics bench into human popcorn.
Moments earlier, the Garden had roared with playoff-like intensity when Fall, formally signed to a 2-way contract Sunday morning, got behind a pair of defenders and delivered an emphatic two-handed slam. Kemba Walker, Boston’s All-Star offseason signee, wrapped one arm around the neck of Smart and the other around Jaylen Brown, then lifted his feet off the ground and swung with the joy of a young child.
On a night the Celtics led by as much as 54 en route to a lopsided 118-72 triumph over the visiting Cavaliers, the veterans on the bench seemed to enjoy rooting for the rookies maybe more than building the lead.
Yes, part of the hysteria was the inescapable pull of TackoMania. It was Smart who, when coach Brad Stevens called for Fall to enter, stood up beside him and repeatedly implored the Garden crowd to get loud as Fall headed to the scorer’s table.
But Smart said the reason for Boston’s unbridled joy in watching its youngest players succeed goes beyond just Fall. The Celtics have eight rookies competing for roster spots in camp and seven of them could make the final 17-man roster. The bigger picture: Some of those first-year players are going to have to contribute when games are tenser than a breezy preseason matinee.
"I learned as a young guy coming in, confidence is big,” said Smart. "And we’re trying to give our young guys as much confidence as they can handle, as much as they need, as much as we can give because we’re going to need them. We got a lot of new faces out there, a lot of young new faces. We need these guys to have as much confidence as they can because, when things get tight, we need that confidence to keep going.
“But we’re really excited for those guys.”
So with every Max Strus 3-pointer — and there were four of them — the veterans sprang to their feet in support. Every time Tremont Waters channeled his inner-Isaiah Thomas while probing his way to the hoop for a leaning finger roll, the veterans snapped their towels in excitement.
"That’s what it’s about. That’s what a team is about,” said Smart. "Everybody succeeds. Those guys have worked hard, so it’s only right for us to go out there and cheer those guys on, because they do the same for us.”
The camaraderie of the rookies is palpable on this squad. It’s also manifested itself in a shared work ethic and a desire to improve, which hasn’t been lost on Stevens.
“[Strus], Javonte [Green], Tacko, Waters and obviously the guys we drafted, [Romeo] Langford and [Carsen] Edwards and [Grant] Williams, that's as good of a group of rookie workers as I've ever been around,” said Stevens. "They work. They all can play and they all have a good impact on our environment, which is important.
"Those guys — those guys grind. They are hard workers.”
Given the departures this summer, the Celtics will have to lean on those rookies. Williams and French import Vincent Poirier will get minutes in a new-look frontcourt, while Edwards has proven himself capable of scoring from the instant he comes off the bench. Injuries will only open more avenues for these young players to see court time in their first NBA seasons.
The younger players appreciate the way the veterans are trying to instill an early confidence.
"It’s a team game, so we’re all in it together,” said Strus, who signed a partially guaranteed deal Sunday and then put forth his best in-game case for earning the 15th roster spot. "We work together every day, non-stop. We all look out for each other and we cheer for [the veterans], they cheer for us, and it’s great to have that camaraderie on this team.”
It’s almost too easy to point to this start-of-the-year chemistry and suggest how different it is from last season when there, at times, seemed to be a divide between the “young guys,” and more established veterans. But these Celtics have worked hard to avoid comparisons between this year and last, and their actions this season are simply an understanding that everyone needs to be pulling in the same direction if this team is going to outkick the already tempered expectations.
There’s still an excitement at what this team can become and some of that will be dictated by how much younger players improve, and how much they can handle from the jump. Impossibly, players like Walker and Brown have flown quietly under the radar this preseason because some rookies have taken much of the spotlight, which amuses Stevens.
"Everybody’s flying under the radar except for Tacko,” cracked the coach. "So, that’s OK. We’ll take that.”
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