Tacko Time offers a glimpse into the good-vibe Celtics

Tacko Time offers a glimpse into the good-vibe Celtics

BOSTON — Boston Celtics coach Brad Stevens’ family was out of town Friday so the coach called them up before Friday’s game against the Pistons and was rattling off the team’s extended injury report.

Stevens' teenage son, Brady, wondered how the Celtics were going to match up with Detroit rebound-magnet Andre Drummond. Then Stevens’ 10-year-old daughter, Kinsley, interjected from the backseat of the car.

“It’s time to give the people what they want,” Kinsley told her father.

What the people wanted, of course, was Tacko Fall. But they wanted Tacko, in part, because on Friday night, even as Kemba Walker labored through one of the roughest nights of his NBA career, the injury-depleted Celtics opened a 27-point lead and set the stage for Fall’s oddly electrifying regular-season TD Garden debut.

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Even as the “We Want Tacko!” chants grew in intensity in the second half, Stevens resisted the urge to send Fall in too early. He knew he would give in eventually but, with Walker motioning for the Garden to get louder, Stevens, too, wanted to make the crowd work for it before he finally relented and sent Fall in with about five minutes to play.

"I was laughing the whole time everybody was chanting because all I could think about was Kinsley leading the cheers,” said Stevens. ‘But it was good to see him play well.”

TackoMania is an understandably notable storyline from Friday's game. Boston fans fell in love with undrafted 7-foot-5 Fall during the Celtics’ summer league stay in Vegas and his cult popularity played at least a small part in Fall muscling his way into a 2-way contract with the team during training camp.

But here’s why the Tacko hype is especially notable: His Celtics teammates were as geeked to see him on the court as the fans. Jayson Tatum repeatedly nudged Fall towards the scorer’s table before Stevens called for him, and Fall obliged to the bench’s demand to deke the fans (leading to a roar and then some groans when Fall sat back down, including when he simply stood up to dap up Walker as he exited the game).

But the bench went as wild as the crowd as Fall sprinted down the sideline, shedding his oversized warmups on the way to the scorer’s table. The entire Garden roared throughout the near minute wait before a dead ball allowed Fall to finally sub in, and they stayed standing as play resumed. Then the building lost its collective mind, roaring with playoff-like intensity, when Fall pivoted his way into a baseline sky hook that got a friendly bounce in with 1:28 to go.

Fall doesn’t get the opportunity if Jaylen Brown doesn’t have a second-quarter outburst — hitting three 3-pointers and scoring 10 points over the final 1:21 of the first half — as Boston stretched its lead to double digits. Fall doesn’t get in the game if Grant Williams doesn’t erupt for a career-best 18 points on 8-of-10 shooting, brushing off the shooting woes that defined first 25 games of his rookie season.

On a night when Walker missed all six shots he took and offset 11 assists with seven turnovers, the Celtics had every reason to struggle. Boston was still without both Marcus Smart (double eye infection) and Gordon Hayward (sore foot), and yet still took care of business against an inferior opponent.

The good vibes from all that went well on the court permeated the locker room after the game. Williams was detailing his big night — including how coaches had roasted him during film earlier this week by playing a famously terrible sportsmanship commercial after Williams put his hand up like he should have been whistled for pushing Kristaps Porzingis from behind in Dallas earlier this week — when he got asked about a raising-the-roof celebration he displayed late in the game.

Williams screamed across the locker room to teammate Javonte Green trying to determine who had started the raise-the-roof trend. Was it Green? Was it Daniel Theis. Neither player offered confirmation and instead started roasting Williams about his first career NBA dunk — a surprising tip dunk for a typically low-to-the ground player.

Fall would take his spot shortly after Williams and, as his media session winded down, Green hollered across the room, “Love you, Tacko.”

Yes, as Tatum would declare a short time later, “When you're winning, it’s fun. Hopefully we can keep it up.”

Williams noted that these Celtics are simply a loose bunch.

"I think this is just a goofy team,” said Williams. “We enjoy each other, we're having a good time. It's fun to win but it's also fun to compete with guys that you know are going to play their butts off for you every single night, play with that effort and intensity on both ends of the court. We celebrate each other, but we also get on each other.”

The expectations of last season, combined with the general underperformance of the team, often left the mood tense around these Celtics last year. It didn’t always feel like they were happy for each other’s successes and they certainly didn’t handle failures well as a group.

The Celtics are 19-7, sit second in the East behind Milwaukee, and project at a 56-win pace based on their performance. An agreeable schedule awaits to close out the year — if only because some of their competition is likewise dealing with injuries — before the schedule jumps into overdrive in January.

Getting Williams going could be a big help, even if the Celtics soon get back Smart and Hayward. Further down the road, they could add Robert Williams (hip bruise) and Vincent Poirier (fractured finger). The margin for error is thinner without those players and yet the Celtics showed again Friday night that it might not matter when young stars Brown and Tatum play the way they did.

It helps, too, that Daniel Theis and Enes Kanter were up to the challenge of battling with Drummond, who finished with a modest-by-his-standards 11 rebounds over 31 minutes. Kanter put up a season-high 18 rebounds in 21 minutes, while Theis had four blocks as part of a solid 22 minutes.

All of which paved the way for Tacko Time. Fall, much to the delight of the crowd that serenaded him with MVP chants, put up 5 points on 2-of-2 shooting with two rebounds, a block, and two turnovers.

Asked about how far he’s come early in his pro career, Fall said, "A long way, and I have a long way to go. Still have to stay the course. Trust in the plan they have for me and things will work out … I have so much potential. I don’t want to be average. Keep working.”

But even he knows how much easier it makes things when his teammates are pulling for him just as hard as the crowd.

"Says a lot about the team we have this year,” said Fall. “Everyone pulling for each other, everybody is happy for everybody’s success, and that means a lot for me that people want to see me do good, from the people who work in the facility to the front office, players, everybody.”

Yes, even the coach’s daughter is rooting for Tacko.

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Jayson Tatum, Celtics officially playoff ready after win vs. Grizzlies

Jayson Tatum, Celtics officially playoff ready after win vs. Grizzlies

Jayson Tatum, sporting some sort of cyborg, choke-sign Reggie Miller T-shirt that Indiana native Brad Stevens would certainly approve of, plopped down in a chair for his postgame Zoom conference Tuesday night and was asked to assess Boston’s postseason preparedness.

"I think we’re ready,” Tatum declared, hammering home what Boston’s play over the past four games had already confirmed.

The Celtics can comfortably put their core players in, ahem, bubble wrap for Thursday’s seeding-game finale against the Washington Wizards. Everything has fallen into place for Boston over the past week, not the least of which is August Tatum playing like February Tatum while scoring a game-high 29 points on 10-of-13 shooting over 29 minutes as the Celtics handed a desperate Grizzlies team a 122-107 loss on Tuesday night.

Don't miss NBC Sports Boston's coverage of Celtics-Wizards, which begins Thursday at 11 a.m. with Celtics Pregame Live followed by tip-off at noon. You can also stream the game on the MyTeams App.

The Celtics, sluggish and rust-filled early in the bubble experience, have clicked on most cylinders the past seven days. The ball has zipped around the court, the team displaying increased ball movement and highlight-quality passing that has keyed Boston’s offensive surge, which includes owning the second best offensive rating in the bubble (120.3, trailing only playoff-pushing Portland).

When one of Boston’s usual offensive weapons has had a rough night, others have stepped forward. Case in point: As Jaylen Brown labored through a 3-for-13 shooting performance Tuesday, Gordon Hayward — his bubble alter ego Stache Gordon slowly emerging — shook off his own 3-point woes to put up 19 points behind four triples. Tatum hit some absurdly tough shots (negating his five turnovers) and Kemba Walker showed more signs of being back to the All-Star form from the start of the season.

Walker put a Grizzlies defender on skates with a ruthless jab-step pull-up late in the fourth quarter. Later he noted, "Today is probably the best I’ve felt out there. I was really comfortable making my moves and stuff like that.” The next time Walker plays, the minute restriction that caused some of Boston’s early bubble turbulence will be a thing of the past. And it’s no coincidence that, as that restriction loosened, Boston started to find its groove.

Boston’s net rating inside the bubble is now plus-10.3, second only to the undefeated Phoenix Suns. The next closest Eastern Conference team is Toronto at plus-3.7.

“We’ve definitely come a long way, and we’re gelling really well,” said Walker. "Having fun, competing at a very high level.”

Not only has Boston’s core players looked ready to go but the team has found a little something in its complementary pieces as well. Second-year big man Robert Williams, who did little to kick down the playing-time door during scrimmage work, has been a revelation the past four games. He went from not getting off the bench in Boston’s early seeding games to putting together four straight eyebrow-raising efforts. In that span, Williams has averaged 11.5 points, 4.8 rebounds, and 1.8 blocks over 14.8 minutes per game. He’s made 19 of his 23 shot attempts (82.6 percent) with many of his finishes coming north of the rim.

Stevens' bench, once perilously thin, looks like it can confidently lean on at least four options in the postseason. Smart and Brad Wanamaker will handle backup guard minutes while Williams and Enes Kanter should split center reps based on matchups. Stevens can mix in the occasional doses of Semi Ojeleye or Grant Williams or Romeo Langford on nights he must go deeper.

The Celtics have proven they can hang with the best of the Eastern Conference, putting a scare into Milwaukee despite spotting them a big early lead early in scrimmage play, and taking down Toronto at the height of their bubble buzz.

A matchup with injury-battered Philadelphia seems inevitable to open the playoffs. The Sixers still have plenty of talent, including old friend Al Horford, but the absence of Ben Simmons, and some uncertainty about the health of Joel Embiid, makes Philadelphia a far more agreeable foe than maybe it seemed even a week ago.

Boston’s improved level of play has helped boost the team’s confidence as well, regardless of first-round opponent.

“Obviously, we continue to get better, and I think we have from Game 1 playing down here to now,” said Tatum. "I think we just continue to get better each and every game, and that’s what you want this time of year, to continue to get better at the right time of the season.”

Barring the bizarre during Thursday’s matinee finale, the Celtics will head into the postseason playing some inspired ball and operating with a contender’s confidence.

The last four games haven’t been perfect but the Celtics have shown their potential during them. With Stevens’ ability to hone in on an opponent and an added level of focus required by the postseason, Boston has a chance to take its play even a level higher.

The last four games have shown that the Celtics are ready for what’s next.

Stars, Studs and Duds from Celtics' impressive win over Grizzlies

Stars, Studs and Duds from Celtics' impressive win over Grizzlies

With the No. 3 spot locked up and no chance of moving up or down, there was not a ton of incentive for the Boston Celtics in their next-to-last seeding game, against the Memphis Grizzlies.

But you would have thought it was the Celtics -- not the Grizzlies -- who were playing for their postseason lives.

This Celtics team has shown itself to be more than just one of the best teams talent-wise we’ve seen since Brad Stevens took over in 2013.

Don't miss NBC Sports Boston's coverage of Celtics-Wizards, which begins Thursday at 11 a.m. with Celtics Pregame Live followed by tip-off at noon. You can also stream the game on the MyTeams App.

Watching the way this group has grown throughout the season and even more so during the league’s restart in Orlando, Fla., the Celtics have shown a level of focus on the task at hand – winning games – that has allowed them to not just survive in the Bubble but thrive against any and all the competition.

The latest to fall by the wayside against the Celtics was the Grizzlies, who were no match for Boston as the Celtics pulled away for a comfortable 122-107 win.

It was a performance that like so many we’ve seen of late from Boston, consisted of players stepping up to contribute in a multitude of ways.

And the Grizzlies, one of the feel-good stories of the season, were unable to make it much of a game.

Jayson Tatum: Memphis became the latest team that simply had no answer on how to contain Tatum. He led all scorers with 29 points in addition to grabbing six rebounds.

Ja Morant: For most of this season, Morant has been the best first-year player in the NBA. You can chalk up Tuesday’s game as yet another strong performance by Morant who led the Grizzlies with a double-double of 26 points and 13 assists.

Kemba Walker: After a rough game against Orlando, Walker bounced back with an efficient game with 19 points coming on 7-for-10 shooting to go with four rebounds and three assists. 

Marcus Smart: He put up a near double-double of 11 points and nine assists, but Smart’s impact was so much greater. His floor leadership, attention to detail, defense, intensity ... Smart brought it all to the floor and the Celtics were so much better off for it.

Jonas Valenciunas: If there’s one area of concern for the Celtics going forward, it has been the ability of opposing big men to put up big games with most of their work getting done around the rim. Valenciunas had a double-double of 14 points and 10 rebounds.

Robert Williams III: The days of being in and out of the lineup because of ineffective play or injuries appear to be behind Williams. He didn’t play a ton of minutes but Williams once again made his mark, finishing with 10 points, seven rebounds and three blocked shots in just 14 minutes of court time.

Brandon Clarke: The play of Clarke is one of the many reasons why the Grizzlies feel their best days are ahead of them. Clarke had 15 points on 7-for-14 shooting to go with six rebounds and a blocked shot.

Daniel Theis
: One of the not-so-bright spots for Boston was the play of Theis who had two points on 1-for-3 shooting along with struggles defensively.