BOSTON — Ime Udoka finally saw flashes of the team he wanted the Celtics to become on Wednesday.
He saw it when Robert Williams III got out on Pascal Siakam’s mid-range attempt for a block and finished in transition. He saw it when Jayson Tatum took a long defensive rebound to the house for a layup late in the second quarter. He saw it when Al Horford drew two on a post-up and found Dennis Schröder for a three — in the corner.
The Celtics wanted to reach the rim to start this season and improved it, ranking 17th on shots at the basket on their three-game road trip after ranking as low as any team on attempts within five feet. Their spacing lagged too, so Boston spent its three days off before a home tilt with the Raptors emphasizing offense. Udoka wanted the corner three to return, after the Celtics ranked only second to Utah at trying them through four games, and eighth in efficiency.
That latest message from the head coach settled in quickly. Boston started 5-of-9 from three, targeting the corners with Tatum twice finding Romeo Langford for makes through a five-assist half. Tatum finished with 22 points, 12 rebounds and seven assists as the Celtics led wall-to-wall toward a 104-88 victory.
Horford missed another good look from there, as did Langford when Dalano Banton read the rotation and darted to block the shot. Part of the disruptive randomness of Toronto’s scheme, as Udoka described it. Overall, the C’s finished finished 37% in the first half, an improvement over their numbers on the season, and 34.5% in the game.
Elsewhere, Williams III emulated Toronto’s opening night dominance on the offensive glass, throwing down an early Horford missed hook shot on the weak side. He flushed a Marcus Smart three-pointer with a rim-glazing tap for two. Williams III hauled in seven first-half offensive boards, including five put-backs, with Horford adding another.
The Raptors stayed within a possession until Precious Achiuwa blocked a Tatum drive, bumping him after as Josh Richardson chased down Svi Mykhailiuk the other way for a block. Langford ran the ball back, missed inside, and Williams III followed his shot with two hands above the rim. Tatum found Langford for three next time down and the C’s led 33-25 entering the second.
Schröder almost derailed Boston there with three turnovers in a row and a wild reverse layup attempt on the Celtics’ first four possessions. The Raptors scored on all three, leaning into their transition game, until Langford got in the way of Achiuwa’s full-court charge to draw an offensive foul.
Smart reestablished the Boston lead with a cutting layup, catching a pass from Tatum underneath, then grew it by feeding Grant Williams on his own cutting make. Smart caught a steal in the passing lane and got pulled down by Malachi Flynn on a breakout layup, drawing a flagrant foul on Toronto.
The Celtics converted only one point out of the replay, but kept running, which paid dividends immediately. Rob put back another Langford miss and jumped out on Siakam’s shot attempt, propelling himself toward the basket and catching a long Tatum pass for a transition dunk and a 46-35 Celtics lead. Another Udoka emphasis.
Then, Smart tossed a lob toward the rim that Williams III caught and buried over Scottie Barnes’ foul, the highlight of a 14-point first half following his 7-for-8 performance in Dallas. Back-to-back Tatum makes secured a double-double and a 16-point halftime lead.
Toronto dug into that with a 22-18 third quarter, occasionally reaching within 10 points only to be stalled by timely Boston baskets. Smart stole a Siakam pass aimed for the corner and lobbed his own over Siakam’s outstretched hand in transition to set Schröder up for a breakout layup.
Breakouts following lost balls by Horford and Williams on post-up attempts led to an early Udoka timeout, before an uncontested transition dunk for Siakam sent him onto the court clapping his hands. Smart hit a layup and found Tatum for a mid-range shot in response, before Horford hit his own jumper on a driving feed from Schröder.
Boston’s lead held at 12 following a last second Richardson burst for a layup. He began the fourth hitting a three and running down Achiuwa after the Raptors big stripped him. Langford rose and blocked Achiuwa’s shot in tandem plays later, with Richardson before the latter got called for a foul. Boston’s rim protection held firm for most of the game, with Rob leading a disruptive effort.
Tatum fell on an attempt that should’ve resulted in goaltending in the lane, grabbing his left knee for a moment before rising and hitting a pair of free throws. He didn’t record a second-half assist, until he found Rob for a cutting layup and fed Schröder following one of Tatum’s own on back-to-back makes by the pair in transition that closed the door.
Schröder and Smart slammed it a moment later with mid-range and three-point jumpers, riding 17 forced turnovers to a third victory in four games. Just the way Udoka pictured it.
The Celtics (5-6) host the Bucks (5-6) Friday at 7:30 EST, before back-to-back games in Cleveland.