So we’ve established the Celtics need bench help. We understand they are a starter-heavy team without much punch beyond their primary players. So it’s difficult to once again hammer the team for being exactly what it is.
The Celtics, at this point, just have to hope for better health. Jaylen Brown missed his second consecutive game with a strained right hamstring. Gordon Hayward stayed at home with a bruised right knee.
That left the onus of scoring on Jayson Tatum, Marcus Smart, and Kemba Walker, and all three struggled in a brick-filled 99-94 loss to the Utah Jazz on Friday at TD Garden.
There are going to be nights when the Celtics have to win with defense, and they were just vulnerable enough in the second period when they allowed eight 3-pointers.
The Celtics are two games back of the Toronto Raptors for the No. 2 seed in the Eastern Conference with 20 games to play, but the club is considering shifting gears and preparing for the playoffs, with minutes restrictions on Tatum and Walker, and perhaps Brown and Hayward when they return.
But it should be a difficult decision to relent on chasing the second seed when the reward is a first-round playoff series with the Orlando Magic or Brooklyn Nets instead of the Philadelphia 76ers or Indiana Pacers, either of whom would be a brutal and exhausting series for the Celtics.
If the Celtics aren’t going to sign a free agent, they’ll have to make due with the talent they have. And that means point guard Tremont Waters, who is playing for G-League Maine but logged minutes in the past two games.
This isn’t to blame Brad Wanamaker, who has had his moments at backup point guard, but if Walker is going to play less, the Celtics need more of a creator in his place. It was a tough night for Wanamaker, who finished with 9 points and a minus-25 in his 26 minutes. His two 3-point attempts when the Celtics were trying to furiously rally late in the game fell way short.
Waters has also had his moments in his 89 minutes this season but he needs more playing time down the stretch to get comfortable. It’s apparent the Celtics’ bench needs a spark, and Wanamaker playing extensive minutes in Walker’s absence is not going to boost the Celtics offense.
Celtics coach Brad Stevens reflected on this loss more positively than Tuesday’s debacle against the Nets, but the team still has the same problems: They can’t score or create enough consistent offense when their starters rest, Enes Kanter is losing minutes quickly because he can’t play in small lineups or up tempo, and the rest of the bench is just too young and inexperienced to be relied upon for productive minutes consistently.
Want an example? In Friday’s loss, every Celtics starter was a plus in his minutes, meaning the Celtics outscored the Jazz when each starter was on the floor. Every member of the bench was a minus in their minutes, including rookie Romeo Langford, who was a minus-16 in his five.
“It’s so hard to know [about our bench],” Stevens said. “We had a guy score 22 the other night [Semi Ojeleye] and we’ve had a number of our guys play well off the bench, and we’ve never really had our bench intact because we’ve never really had our full starters intact, so it’s hard to know. When we’re full, we’ll see how it looks and see how it goes.”
The road ahead isn’t any easier. The Oklahoma City Thunder come in Sunday, and they have won 15 of their past 17 road games. Then there is a two-game road trip to Indiana and Milwaukee. The Celtics are unsure when Brown and Hayward are coming back.
“We may not have those two guys on Sunday, certainly not Jaylen,” Stevens said. “Who knows what crops up between now and then, that’s the way the league works. You play as well as you can and the guys that play a lot of minutes, again, did a lot of good things.”
Stevens can laud his current roster all he wants, because he knows he’s going to have to go the rest of the season with these 15 players. And if the bench is a problem and president Danny Ainge plans on making no moves, it’s up to Stevens to shake things up or try something new. They need to bring up Waters ASAP, allow him to grow into a role, and then bank Carsen Edwards can turn into the shooter they envisioned.
Other than that, the Celtics’ best hope for a long playoff run is good health, and that’s nothing they can control.
“The feeling I have sitting up here is a lot different than Tuesday night,” Stevens said. “I felt like we missed some opportunities, but those opportunities we controlled pretty well as far as getting reasonable chances to get back in that game.”