The Boston Celtics picked up their rivalry with the Philadelphia 76ers right where they left off.
Jayson Tatum scored 23 points and the Celtics defense locked down on their way to a 105-87 win over the Sixers in both teams' season opener Tuesday.
Tatum's strong performance helped overcome a difficult night from Kyrie Irving, who finished with seven points on 2-of-14 shooting in his first game back from a knee injury. Gordon Hayward had 10 points, five rebounds and four steals in 25 minutes, playing for the first time since he suffered a gruesome leg injury on opening night a year ago.
Ben Simmons (19 points, 15 rebounds, eight assists) and Joel Embiid (23 points, 10 rebounds) led the way for the Sixers.
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All summer long: Ben Simmons, shoot a three, you coward.
Opening night: Ben Simmons, you are amazing. What is a three-pointer? Eliminate that thing and let's go back to the golden age of basketball.
Simmons was nothing short of amazing Tuesday night. He was the best player on the floor for almost every second of his 43 minutes (!) of action. He played lockdown defense, hauled in rebounds and led the break. The Sixers struggled with their half-court offense—a result of stellar defensive effort from Boston—but Simmons was an open-court marvel.
No player had at least 19 points, 15 rebounds, eight assists, four steals and two blocks in the same game last season. In fact, it's happened exactly once in the last decade.
Shooting is still a problem. Simmons didn't attempt a three and shot only 5-of-11 from the free-throw line. It's unclear if he'll ever become an even average jump-shooter.
But Simmons affects the game in so many ways, it may not matter.
And if the jumper ever comes, he could be the best player in basketball in five years.
Celtics Defense Remains Championship-Caliber
The Sixers have problems with their half-court offense. Simmons and Markelle Fultz are an awkward fit in the starting lineup, and it's clear they're taking a more long-term view with the 2018-19 season. Putting JJ Redick back in the starting five could have helped the offense, and the Sixers clanged some open shots.
Still, Boston's defense looks incredible.
Irving is the smallest player in the starting lineup at 6'3", and none of them are a glaring minus on defense. Hayward struggled at points as he continues to work his way back from his injury, but he still racked up four steals and knew where he was going at all times.
It should be illegal to have Terry Rozier and Marcus Smart coming off the bench to terrorize opposing ball-handlers. Smart might be the best perimeter defender in the NBA, while Rozier is an aggressive defender who could develop into an All-Defensive team candidate if he got more minutes. Marcus Morris is tough as nails and versatile enough to handle three positions. Aron Baynes gets dunked on all the time, but he constantly gives effort nevertheless.
The Celtics should lead the league in defensive efficiency if everyone stays healthy. Brad Stevens is the best coach in the NBA, and Jay Larranaga may be the league's best assistant. Combine that with a long, smart roster assembled by Danny Ainge, and the Celtics already look ready for a championship run.
Sixers Aren't Going Far if Covington's Shot Is Broken
Some believe the key to the Sixers' season is Fultz's development. Covington may be the true X-factor, though—specifically whether he can be the three-and-D player the Sixers need or only provides the latter portion.
During the regular season, Covington hit enough shots for defenses to respect him. He was one of the most underrated players in the NBA, finishing sixth in wins added. If he consistently knocks down open shots, he's one of the best value contracts in the league.
But if he can't—like he didn't throughout the postseason and on Tuesday—he'll be a difficult fit with the Sixers moving forward. Their starting lineup is already full of shaky shooters. Dario Saric, who missed all four of his threes, is the closest thing they have to a plus shooter in the new starting five. Fultz and Simmons didn't attempt a single three, and Embiid's willingness to take those shots isn't always great.
Covington will go a long way toward deciding whether this starting five works or not. If he's a below-average shooter, the Sixers are going to need to move Fultz to the bench in favor of Redick for spacing purposes. But if Covington finds his shot, the Sixers could wind up with the NBA's best starting lineup.
The Sixers host the Chicago Bulls on Thursday. The Celtics travel to Toronto for a game against the Raptors on Friday.