Boston Celtics

Jan 3, 2021; Detroit, Michigan, USA; Boston Celtics head coach Brad Stevens signals to his team during the fourth quarter against the Detroit Pistons at Little Caesars Arena. Mandatory Credit: Raj Mehta-USA TODAY Sports

By Sean Sylver, 98.5 The Sports Hub

A good road trip can buoy a team on the path to future success. A bad one can sink it. For instance: a disastrous 1-4 Western swing for Brad Stevens’ bunch early in the 2018-19 season was a harbinger of the dysfunction that would plague that team all year long.

The Celtics enter Friday night’s matchup with the Clippers at 1-1 through the first two contests of a five-game excursion away from TD Garden.  The victory over the Warriors Tuesday night was a “good” win. The loss to the lackluster Kings  Wednesday, disappointing. They’ve battled injuries, sure. Their remaining opponents, however, are far more dynamic than Sacramento: the Clippers, Suns and Jazz hold a combined .692 winning percentage.

As the guys from ClipCast noted in our recent conversation, the visiting team experience during the pandemic has changed remarkably from seasons past. With road teams holed up in hotels, the focus on basketball has never been more singular. They also (in most cases) don’t have to deal with opposing fans. Maybe that will help the Green develop the night-to-night consistency they’ve been lacking so far. But with three games looming against teams with as good or better records, a disappointing outcome is on the table.

On the bench

Celtics head coach Brad Stevens talks with forward Grant Williams (12). (Kim Klement-USA TODAY)

Celtics head coach Brad Stevens talks with forward Grant Williams (12). (Kim Klement-USA TODAY)

Grant Williams’ 15 points Tuesday night were a season high and three shy of a career-best set last year against Detroit. He also made 3-of-3 from behind the arc, leaving him at 46 percent, the top percentage on the team.

The second-year forward’s 2020-21 season has been about finding minutes and doing something with them. Williams was a DNP-CD against the Lakers. He picked up four fouls in limited action against the Kings. His defensive intensity is always there, and he’s already evolved offensively from what we saw early in his career. The next step is consistency.

The bench needs it. Through Wednesday, Boston’s bench ranks 21st in the NBA in scoring at 32.9 points per game. And as injuries and COVID issues have moved typical reserve guys up to the starting five, the second unit would welcome a sustained scoring punch.

Pivotal role

Celtics forward Tristan Thompson, circa 2018. (Jason Miller/Getty Images)

Celtics forward Tristan Thompson, circa 2018. (Jason Miller/Getty Images)

After scoring just one point and hauling in five rebounds (in 14 minutes) of a Lakers game where the Celtics got mauled on the boards and some were questioning his role with the team, Tristan Thompson has bounced back to start the road trip. He’s made 12-of-14 field goals over the first two games for averages of 15 points and nine rebounds in 23 minutes.

It’s what we hoped for when Boston used its mid-level exception to pluck the veteran from a Cleveland roster he’d called home since his NBA debut. Starter or not, a healthy, productive Thompson gives Stevens another option who can extend the rotation.

Guarded optimism

Celtics guard Marcus Smart (36) is helped up after being injured against the Los Angeles Lakers at TD Garden. (Winslow Townson-USA TODAY)

Celtics guard Marcus Smart (36) is helped up after being injured against the Los Angeles Lakers at TD Garden. (Winslow Townson-USA TODAY)

On Toucher and Rich Thursday, Danny Ainge commented on the backcourt injuries that were a factor in Boston’s loss to Sacramento on Wednesday night. Kemba Walker is expected to play Friday. It looks like we may see Payton Pritchard soon.

“He’s very close. He was close to playing [Wednesday]. Payton is a tough kid and our biggest fear with him is coming back too soon…his history in high school and college is ‘I wanna play through everything.’ I’m suspecting at some point on this trip, he’ll be ready to play.”

And while the Marcus Smart injury could have been worse, Ainge preached caution.

“Marcus won’t play on this trip, for sure. We thought two or three weeks would be his time frame, but that calf injury can be worse than you think on occasion.”

“He’s another guy that wants to get back on the court when he can feel close to playing. We’ve gotta be careful and make sure he’s 100 percent healthy.”

Coming up next

The Celtics and Clippers (17-6, second in the Western Conference) tip off at 10 pm Friday evening on 98.5 The Sports Hub. Jaylen Brown, who hasn’t missed a game all season, is questionable with left knee soreness. Point guard Patrick Beverley continues to be out for LA.

Get ready for the game with a new podcast, featuring myself and the hosts of ClipCast in Los Angeles, Chris Wylde and Henry Dittman. You can listen below.

Sean Sylver can be heard on 98.5 The Sports Hub. Talk hoops with him on Twitter @TheSylverFox.