By Sean Sylver, 98.5 The Sports Hub
With all the praise the Celtics received last week for their West Coast exploits, there should be an equal amount of concern this time around. A stellar home team for much of the season, the Green just dropped a third consecutive game in their own building, securing a single road victory over the Cavaliers this week in falling two games back of Toronto for second place in the Eastern Conference.
Every team deals with injuries, and the Celtics have had their fair share of late. Jaylen Brown, Gordon Hayward, Jayson Tatum and Kemba Walker each missed one or more games over the past week, and Brad Stevens was unable to duct tape the lineup together in their absence.
The Boston bench had just four points in a showcase game against the Rockets last Saturday night. They had 13 total points against Utah on Friday and hemorrhaged points to the Jazz in the first half. They scored plenty against Brooklyn, but were again a minus defensively.
And that’s a cause for concern. While nobody on the pine profiles as the second coming of Vinnie “The Microwave” Johnson (despite Semi Ojeleye’s career-high 22 points as a starter in Boston’s lone win this week), the minimum expectation for the bench is a competent defensive effort while the scorers get a breather. The deeper Stevens has to plumb the depths of his roster, the greater the chance of chaos. And that’s what we got.
The obvious goal is to have everyone healthy for the postseason, when Stevens can rely on his top guys, best rotations, and matchup-based decisions. In the meantime, as multiple starters deal with nagging injuries and Kemba Walker struggles through a minutes restriction, it’ll be tough to close that gap with Toronto.
Sean Grande alluded to some of Boston’s perceived shortcomings on Friday night’s radio broadcast, before unloading a trove of big picture stats that indicated the C’s are just fine, thank you. One of the areas of concern has been the center position – part of the reason I’ve devoted this space to tracking the exploits of Boston’s nominal big men.
As we all know, Danny Ainge did not trade for a big last month. He’s riding with Daniel Theis, whose post-deadline performance has made Ainge look pretty smart. Meanwhile, in Cleveland, Andre Drummond has failed to meet expectations and is currently hurt. Clint Capela hasn’t played a single game for the Hawks.
But that’s the big picture. What happens in a seven-game series? Will Stevens call on Enes Kanter to navigate the tall trees? He contributed a double-double in a mere 14 minutes on Wednesday, but has largely collected splinters in recent weeks, including Friday night, when he was a minus-13 in five minutes of play.
Meanwhile, Robert Williams is getting a look. Stevens clearly sees something in the second year big despite nearly three months on the shelf with a hip injury. While Williams was a step behind in his 2020 debut on Tuesday, he looked much better Wednesday and contributed eight rebounds and three blocks Friday, both tied for his second-highest single game totals in those categories this season.
While a Timelord miscue in the playoffs could swing a game in the wrong direction, it may be that Stevens sees enough upside in the young center to disrupt the Theis-Kanter timeshare, which has heavily favored Theis of late anyway. It’s a situation worth monitoring.
A look ahead…
It doesn’t get any easier for the Celtics this week, with three consecutive matchups against playoff teams and a Friday home tilt with a plucky Wizards squad that stole one from the C’s in a January contest without Kemba Walker or Bradley Beal. Washington has lost six of nine, and they’re 4.5 games out of the 8th spot in the East.
First up, Oklahoma City visits the Garden Sunday evening. The Celtics squeezed out a road win in OKC just under a month ago. Next are the Pacers, who’ve won five of six and seven out of nine. While Victor Oladipo has missed some of those games, he’s averaging 14 points on 51 percent shooting when he has played during that stretch, as he turns a corner in his recovery from a ruptured quadriceps tendon.
The big one is clearly Thursday’s road matchup in Milwaukee. The two teams have split their matchups so far, and with a postseason showdown still on the table, it could either be a midseason national TV clash or a night where both coaches play it conservatively, resting banged up players and refusing to tip their hands.
Either way, Boston needs to stockpile some W’s, and the competition won’t make that easy.