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BOSTON — The first hint that opening night at TD Garden would not be remembered as an instant classic came on the very first possession of this new N.B.A. season.
Joel Embiid fumbled the ball twice, his Philadelphia 76ers teammate Robert Covington airballed a rushed 3-pointer — and the ball wound up in the hands of the Celtics’ lead owner, Wyc Grousbeck, in his baseline seat near the basket.
The sloppiness rarely let up from there. But that was to be expected in the league’s curtain-raiser on Tuesday night, given not only the inevitable lack of sharpness at this nascent stage of the N.B.A. calendar but also the lengthy injury absences for high-profile returnees like Boston’s Kyrie Irving and Gordon Hayward.
Irving looked especially shaky, missing his first nine shots from the field and being forced to watch the Celtics’ burly reserve center, Aron Baynes, hit a 3-pointer before he did. Yet another nonsurprise played out amid all the mid-October rust: Boston’s seemingly endless depth punished Philadelphia on an evening that Irving and Hayward couldn’t.
And that only served to reinforce the Celtics’ status as the clear favorites in the Eastern Conference.
The Celtics’ two marquee names combined to shoot a ragged 6 for 26 from the floor, but it scarcely mattered in this 105-87 victory over the 76ers, largely because Boston’s bench had four impact reserves (Terry Rozier, Marcus Morris, Marcus Smart and Baynes) to Philadelphia’s one (J.J. Redick).
“You felt all of the Boston Celtics tonight,” Philadelphia Coach Brett Brown said to close his postgame address with reporters.
After he emerged from the news media scrum, Brown then stopped briefly to offer more veneration for the myriad options available to his Celtics counterpart Brad Stevens.
“They’ve got playmakers, they’ve got shot-takers — they’re just playoff-built,” Brown said.
The 76ers are regarded as one of Boston’s two foremost challengers in the post-LeBron James East alongside Toronto, thanks largely to the starry duo of Embiid and Ben Simmons and the momentum Philadelphia started building last season in a 52-win campaign.
The 76ers, remember, won their final 16 regular-season games entering the playoffs. On this night, though, Philadelphia slumped to its 15th defeat in its past 17 regular-season meetings with the Celtics when only Simmons (19 points, 15 rebounds and eight assists) managed to play on Jayson Tatum’s level.
Starting his second season in Boston, and with Irving and Hayward soaking up so much of the pregame focus, Tatum amassed an efficient 23 points and nine rebounds. Al Horford, meanwhile, became the first Celtic since Kevin McHale in November 1990 to block five shots in Boston’s season opener, sparking the hosts defensively as they hounded Philadelphia into 39.1-percent shooting from the field.
Embiid finished with 23 points and 10 rebounds, but the veteran Horford made him work for every ounce of that offense with his savvy resistance in their skirmishes.
As he cleaned out his stall in the visitors’ locker room, Embiid acknowledged that he hungers to beat the Celtics as much as any team he could face in the wake of Philadelphia’s second-round playoff exit to Boston last spring. But there were echoes of Brown’s praise sprinkled in with Embiid’s usual braggadocio when he was asked about the many challenges posed by the Celtics.
“I want to beat them bad,” Embiid said. “We’ve got to find a way. But it’s true — they’re stacked.”
Regarding Tatum specifically, Embiid heaped the superlatives onto a rival for a change, saying: “He’s a special one. He’s going to be great for years.”
Trying to draw deeper conclusions just 48 minutes into the 82-game schedule is dangerous, but a legitimate issue for Philadelphia in the short term — before it can really worry about closing the gap on Boston — continues to be the state of the second-year guard Markelle Fultz.
After all those problems with his jump shot (and psyche) as a rookie, after the Sixers acquired the No. 1 pick from the Celtics specifically to draft him over Tatum, Fultz started and looked tentative — apart from one smooth first-half jumper — in 24 punchless minutes.
Simmons led a couple of breathtaking fast-break rushes in the first half featuring no-look drop passes of the highest standard to trailers, but he was not the Sixer who generated the loudest postgame questions. That would be Fultz, who finished with 5 points and two assists, ceded his starting spot to Redick to open the second half and didn’t play at all in the fourth quarter.
The rookie Landry Shamet, who missed all four of his shots from the field, got a look ahead of Fultz for more than three minutes of the final quarter, during which Philadelphia never got closer than 94-85.
The Celtics, by contrast, didn’t flinch while their aces struggled to find themselves — thanks to that vaunted bench. Irving and Hayward were thus at least able to focus on the significant emotional hurdles they cleared simply by being out there.
“I just had a big smile when they announced my name again,” said Irving, who finished with a mere 7 points (on 2-for-14 shooting) to go with seven assists in 29 minutes.
Hayward, of course, lasted for less than five minutes a year ago in his Celtics debut when he suffered multiple gruesome injuries in his left lower leg. He has been consulting a sport psychologist for nearly a year in the buildup to his return, so it’s little wonder Hayward focused more afterward on the nearly 25 incident-free minutes he logged rather than his modest 10 points (on 4-for-12 shooting).
“For sure it went through my mind,” Hayward said of the devastating opening night he will never forget.
“It’s a big part of my life.”
On Pro Basketball
A regular analytical column focused on the National Basketball Association.
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