By Sean Sylver, 98.5 The Sports Hub
The Celtics are .500 since play resumed in the Disney bubble. That mark isn’t going to help push them past the Raptors for the 2-seed, nor does it place them in imminent danger of falling behind the Heat to fourth in the East.
The Green appear content to head into the playoffs as the 3-seed. At this point, that would mean a first round matchup with the 76ers – 3-1 against Boston in the regular season – but a lot can still change in the bubble (more on that later).
Here’s how the other East contenders stack up after a week:
- Milwaukee (2-2)
The Bucks beat Celtics and Heat but lost to Rockets and Nets (with Giannis Antetokounmpo only playing the first half). They casually clinched the top seed with that victory over Miami last night.
- Toronto (3-0)
The Raptors are taking care of business despite one of the more difficult schedules. They defeated the Lakers, Heat and Magic consecutively, and sit 4.5 games up on the Celtics for the 2-seed headed into tonight’s contest.
- Boston (2-2)
The Celtics can certainly score, but have struggled to get their defensive swagger back.
- Miami (2-2)
The Heat have managed to split their four games despite a brutal grind, beating the Nuggets and Celtics but falling to the Bucks and Raptors. They’re 2.5 games behind Boston, with a slight cushion on the Pacers and 76ers.
- Indiana (3-1)
Count the Pacers as another team making a strong push. Indy grabbed wins over the Sixers, Wizards and Magic – three games across which T.J. Warren scored 119 points – before dropping one to the Suns.
- Philadelphia (2-1)
They lost a critical matchup to the Pacers and then lost a critical player, as Ben Simmons sustained a knee injury that will put him out indefinitely. Philly will have its work cut out, despite trailing Indiana by just half a game.
While we’ve dreaded a potential Boston-Philly pairing for months, the Celtics’ chances certainly improve without All-Star Simmons in the mix. And given the closeness of the latter three teams in the standings, that matchup remains subject to change.
Just over a week ago, I asked Sports Hub colleagues how they felt about Kemba Walker headed into the reboot. Only one response was positive, with most reactions negative. Knee injuries can wreak havoc on an athlete, both in the short term (just ask Simmons and the Sixers) and long (too many examples to count).
However, Walker’s return to the floor in the bubble has given us hope for the games ahead. Coach Brad Stevens limited the point guard to 19, 22 and 26 minutes, respectively, in his first three games back, then sat him for the Brooklyn game a little more than 24 hours after the loss to Miami. But he’s done a lot with his time.
Walker is averaging 15 points, shooting 58 percent on eight field goal attempts per game, and has knocked down nine of 15 three-pointers.
While Kemba’s status could literally change with a moment’s notice, his play so far seems to indicate both health and burst following a four-month layoff. If Walker can remain healthy and effective, he’ll be a critical component of Boston’s postseason run.
Bullish on the Bench
The Nets game gave fans a glimpse of Boston’s depth, which many have criticized as a weakness of the team. But Danny Ainge seems pretty high on his guys off the pine.
“I like our bench,” Ainge told Toucher & Rich Thursday. “I know that it’s been maligned…a lot of the time, it’s because they don’t get a chance to play consistently.”
“Between Marcus Smart, Jaylen (Brown) and Jayson (Tatum), and Gordon Hayward and Kemba, we’re going to have, most likely, three of those guys on the court at all time. We need guys (around them) who are going to be able to play defense and knock down an open shot.”
While Ainge took the opportunity to speak about a number of reserves during the conversation, he was asked specifically for his opinions on Robert Williams III and Romeo Langford – first round picks in the last two drafts.
Ainge praised Langford’s perimeter defense in the Wednesday night game, while highlighting the Indiana product’s offensive capabilities, which thus far have largely been obscured.
Williams’ role holds perhaps the most intrigue, particularly with the Celtics looking at a first round matchup with the 76ers and a need for capable inside play.
“We have three centers and they can all play, so matchups may determine some of that,” Ainge said. “(Williams) brings something a little bit different from what we have on the bench – which is a guy that can protect the rim and space the court offensively.”
Friday night’s showdown with the defending champion Raptors could be a second round playoff preview. Pregame starts at 8:30 on the 98.5 The Sports Hub Celtics Radio Network.
And that’s it for legitimate contenders in the seeding games. The Magic follow on Sunday, with the Grizzlies and Wizards rounding out the schedule Tuesday and Thursday before the playoffs begin.
Sean Sylver can be heard on 98.5 The Sports Hub. Talk hoops with him on Twitter @TheSylverFox.