By Sean Sylver, 98.5 The Sports Hub
At long last, the Boston Celtics resume their 2020 season Friday night against the Eastern Conference-leading Milwaukee Bucks. While it’s unclear if the NBA season will make it to the finish line, the starting line is in sight and – at least for now – we can get back to watching and talking about basketball.
We’ve gathered some of 98.5 The Sports Hub’s keenest Celtics observers to tackle some of the big questions on the Green as they resume their championship quest under perhaps the strangest circumstances in NBA history.
On a scale of 1-10, how do you feel about Kemba Walker’s knee headed into the reboot?
Jim Murray, Felger & Mazz and Gasper & Murray:
I’d have to say I’m a hard 5.
I’m only that high on the scale because of Kemba’s track record of toughness and professionalism. The guy just didn’t miss games in his career before this knee issue became a thing this past winter. Now, after a four-month layoff, he’s not only still dealing with pain in that knee; the team is handling him with kid gloves at these practices? Not a good sign.
If I had to guess, he’ll have minimal impact during the reboot, and it’s all a matter of time before he goes under the knife, he’s never the same player again and we all end up hating the contract. How’s that for a rosy outlook?
James Stewart, Felger & Mazz and Wrestling Inside the Ropes:
About a 2.
It’s not Kemba’s fault that he needed professional treatment on his knee and was locked out of professional rehab centers for four months. My concern is he’s going to blow it out at some point because his mind will want him to compete beyond what his body can handle.
Brian Robb, 98.5 The Sports Hub and Boston Sports Journal:
He looked pretty mobile on the floor in his debut on Sunday…the big test is going to come when his minutes come up but the fact he looked like his old self (even in limited minutes) from a physical standpoint says he has a chance at returning to his early season level. Certainly not a sure thing.
Dan Lifshatz, Over/Under 98.5:
Not great…I’d say maybe 3 or 4.
It sounds like this is going to be a long-term injury that doesn’t get better. You hope Kemba stays healthy, but all it takes is one small tweak and they’ll have to start draining fluid. I would be quite concerned as a Celtics fan.
Kristen Surman, 98.5 The Sports Hub:
Sometimes athletes play shy after injuries (Hayward), but if he’s in a good place mentally, I’d say 7.
Sounds like he’ll be limited to start, so hopefully they’ll build him up by the playoffs.
Mason Sousa, 98.5 The Sports Hub:
I’m probably a 4 with Kemba’s health.
I don’t know how anyone could be confident. We’re on eggshells trying to avoid to term “degenerative” knee problem. It’s been hinted that this is something he has to deal with the rest of his career, which would be one giant kick in the nether region for him and all Celtics fans.
Do you expect Jayson Tatum to continue torching the league (30 points per game) or is that too much to expect after the layoff? Does he even need to?
Robb: I’d be surprised if he even gets close to 25 a night. He’s not going to need to put up those kinds of numbers with the rest of the starting five healthy around him and, to be honest, I don’t think opposing defenses will let him. We are already seeing two or three defenders thrown at him on drives into the paint. Teams are going to game plan to stop him and force the other Celtics to beat them.
Stewart: Not 30 per night, but if he’s in that 22 range with a 40-point pop in a clinching game, that’s good enough. My expectations are players should be ready to compete if they are opting in.
Lifshatz: If the C’s expect to win in the playoffs, it will be from a plurality of guys getting shots while playing Stevens’ D. Tatum can go off in a game or two, but sharing is going to be key. He can’t be selfish in the playoffs and Tatum has to be open to giving up open looks to Kemba, Hayward, or Brown when they have a better shot. I don’t think he’ll have any issues doing it, but sharing the ball will go a long, long way.
Murray: I’d like to think that Tatum gets back to where he was in February before the shutdown. Rust was evident in the first scrimmage, but that’s to be expected from any of these guys. He looked better in the scrimmage against Phoenix (specifically with his passing) and once his shot returns to form, I do think he’ll be putting up between 25 and 30 a night, and they’ll need him to.
Surman: I don’t expect him to put up 30 points per game, but he’ll have some big nights. He doesn’t have to do it all by himself.
Sousa: I hate to lean pessimistic here, but the red flags with Tatum were there during the postponement. He didn’t pick up a basketball for months and there were rumors he was looking to sit out for physical health reasons (not COVID-related reasons) in order to get paid next year.
Don’t get me wrong – I still think he will be very good, and he has to be if the Celtics are going to take the title in the bubble. But I don’t envision him getting close to matching his 41-point game back in February in this restart.
Who’s your key role player (outside of Tatum, Walker, Brown and Hayward) to watch?
Surman: Marcus Smart, for his heart and hustle. Being in that bubble, players will look to a guy like Marcus for his energy and leadership.
Murray: I can’t believe I’m going to say this, but I actually think Daniel Theis will be a key role player for this team during the return, and I’m really only basing this on the scrimmages I’ve watched so far. In the first one, he was seemingly the only player on the floor treating it like it was an actual game, and I really dug his energy. Is he undersized when they use him at the five? Of course. And I don’t expect him to shut down the likes of Embiid or Giannis, but he’s not short on effort and that might go a long way in a return where some players and teams are sort of checked out.
Stewart: Daniel Theis, based on how he defends Giannis and other bigs in the postseason. In the right spot, he runs the offense like Al Horford did.
Robb: Enes Kanter. Theis will be important and get the bulk of the minutes at center, but Kanter will be a wild card when it comes to dealing with bigs. We’ve already seen the best and worst of him at points this season. If the C’s get the guy who can put up a double-double in 15 minutes in Orlando, that’s a big boost for the bench. If not, offense will be tough to come by from the reserves.
Sousa: I’ve got two words for you: Time Lord!
Lifshatz: Theis is a guy I’d watch, but for me its going to be Bob Williams. You need him to be an elite defensive presence, given how much Kanter is going to play. He has to be able to give you some scoring off the bench as well. If he comes back healthy and ready, he’s a game changer for a team that really needs inside defense and bench scoring.
Which team in the East (outside of Milwaukee) is the biggest threat to Boston in the playoffs?
Murray: Philly is the team that’s the biggest threat to the Celtics in the conference. And I know, they were a mess from a continuity and chemistry standpoint before the shutdown – and Brett Brown is mostly a moron – but their size is a problem for the Celtics. Ben Simmons is now taking (and making?!) 3’s, and they’d already proven to be a bad matchup during the regular season, winning 3 of 4. I don’t want to see the Sixers.
Stewart: There is none. The Celtics have four All-Stars. They are the team to beat in the East, despite not being the 1-seed.
Lifshatz: I’ll still go with Philly, who I am hoping they don’t play in round one. No matter how poor they were in the regular season, Embiid and Horford (assuming health for both), are a major size issue for the Celts. Embiid has rag dolled them on the interior and they badly need someone to be somewhat of an Embiid-stopper.
Robb: Raptors. Just a ton of great talent there that knows how to win. Nick Nurse is a crafty coach who should challenge Brad Stevens with his defensive looks. Getting out of the second round will not be easy for the C’s.
Surman: The Raptors frontcourt could be an issue, but I think the Celtics will find a way to get by.
Sousa: Put me down for the Miami Heat to be the second-biggest hurdle for the Celtics and here’s why:
Everyone essentially is playing on the road, right? It’s just a short three-hour drive down I-95 and you’re back in Miami…that’s home court to me. The Heat are used to playing in front of no fans because people would rather be on the beach…add to that a strong 27-5 home record and a solid 28-10 record within the conference. Look for the Heat to capitalize while the humidity is too strong for their opponents.
How far will the Celtics go?
Murray: Jaylen Brown looks diesel, they’ve collectively talked a good game and said all the right things heading down to Orlando – but I just don’t see them getting past Milwaukee in the Eastern Conference Finals. Regardless, it’ll be nice to see them back in action after four months of boring hell.
Sousa: All in all, I don’t see the Celtics getting out of the second round in this restart. With Kemba not 100 percent, Tatum not fully invested, and a less-than-reliable Hayward, that’s too many variables to think the C’s can get by the Raptors, never mind the Bucks. If the Celtics really underperform we may look at this season as an even bigger disappointment than the 2018 Tower of Terror season.
Lifshatz: I think there’s a legitimate chance we see them in the Conference Finals if they don’t meet Milwaukee in the second round. The concerns are – of course – the health of Kemba, interior defense, and the lack of a bench.
Philly poses some real problems. Miami could sneakily pose a threat as well. I think those teams are better than the overachieving Raptors, but if Toronto holds onto the 2-seed, they’ll still have a nice advantage. I’ll take a Celtics vs. Bucks Eastern Conference Finals matchup, where the Celts lose in six.
Robb: Eastern Conference Finals. Expect them to give the Bucks a good run, but a stingy Milwaukee defense ends the C’s season for a second straight year.
Surman: I think they’ll make it to the Eastern Conference Finals, but fall to the Bucks in 7.
Stewart: The Celtics will lose in six games to the Lakers in the NBA Finals. After missing the playoffs last year, there is no way the NBA doesn’t have Celtics vs. Lakers, and LeBron has to win it. It also gives Anthony Davis a championship going in to the offseason. The NBA is really good at progressive storytelling. Does Davis go to the Bulls? The Nets?
Thanks to everyone for their thoughts.
The C’s and Bucks tip off Friday evening on 98.5 The Sports Hub. Pregame coverage starts at 6 pm.