The Celtics on Wednesday trickled back into the Auerbach Center, their first mandatory gathering since the resumption of the NBA season was announced last month. And next week they will join 21 other teams in Orlando as the league restarts after being suspended since March 11 because of the COVID-19 pandemic.
The standings are still in place, and there will still be games played to determine playoff seeding. But for Celtics coach Brad Stevens, the connection to what preceded this return is no longer obvious.
“Really, new season in a lot of ways,” Stevens said. “You can attach it to last season if you want, but in a lot of ways it’s a new season and that’s the way we’re looking at it.”
No one knows exactly how things will look in Orlando, but it’s quite clear that they will not look very normal. There will be no fans, players will undergo regular coronavirus testing, some staffers on benches will wear masks, and for the first time, the NBA playoffs will take place at one site.
Teams spent most of the year working to secure home-court advantage, but that doesn’t matter anymore. Stevens seemed to believe that there was an opportunity for a slightly less talented team to sneak in and surprise people, if the right approach is taken.
“I think the team that has a great grit to it, finds great joy throughout the whole process, stays together throughout the whole process, will be the team that will have a great opportunity to be standing there,” Stevens said.
“Now, obviously the basketball’s going to come into play, but there are a lot of unique challenges that come with this — some predictable, some that I’m sure we’ll figure out when we’re sitting there in the first week.”
After three weeks of practices and a few scrimmages, the Celtics will play eight “seeding games.” They are currently three games behind the second-place Raptors and 2½ ahead of the fourth-place Heat in the Eastern Conference.
But without home-court advantage, positioning will not have as much meaning. And Stevens hinted that he will factor that in as his team prepares for the postseason.
“Obviously, the seeding games are important for everybody that’s there,” he said. “But at the same time, the most important time for us will be that Aug. 17 day [when the playoffs begin]. So as we prepare and add in minutes to the equation and add in where we want to be, that’s kind of our day that we have in mind.”
The Celtics are expected to be healthy and fully present. Stevens said that no players or staffers have tested positive for COVID-19 during preparations for the restart, and that no players intend to sit out. Also, the players who had been dealing with nagging injuries have since recovered.
“[The break] was super important for me,” said All-Star Kemba Walker, who had been fighting through knee soreness. “I really, really needed to get that break. It definitely helped me get back to myself and start to feel comfortable on my knee. It was a very unfortunate time, but it was in my best interests for sure.”
COVID-19 cases have been roaring through Florida in recent weeks, but Walker — who had asthma as a child — said he has no reluctance about returning and is confident that the NBA’s extensive bubble plan will keep teams safe.
“All I do is stay in the house anyways, so there’s nothing wrong with me staying in a room,” he said. “So I’ll be fine, me personally. I’m actually looking forward to it just because I’m ready to play basketball. I’m ready to enjoy myself and I think it’s going to be a pretty good setup out there.”
Some players had expressed concerns that resuming the season could distract from the Black Lives Matter movement. But others countered that the platform will have great value.
“I think we have an opportunity to get together, think about some plans, and execute them together,” Walker said. “We’re all going to be really close to each other. We’ve got a chance to do something big and use our platform to the best of our abilities. I think we’ve got a chance to do something really special amongst each other.”
Stevens said he does not think he will be required to wear a mask during practices or games, but said he would go along with any NBA directives. “If I have to, I’ll have to get good with hand signals,” he said. Some assistants are expected to be required to wear masks, however … The NBA is limiting traveling parties, so some Celtics staffers will stay in Boston. Stevens said he is hopeful those restrictions will be lifted when the field is whittled from 22 teams to 16 for the playoffs. “We’ve tried to identify how to be the most efficient we can be with people that can be excellent remotely as well,” he said.
In 2011, Walker was drafted by the Charlotte Hornets and Cam Newton was selected by the Carolina Panthers. For eight years, they were mostly the city’s two biggest sports stars. Now that Newton has joined the Patriots, they’ll be reunited in a way. “I’m happy for him,” Walker said. “New beginnings, obviously, and the fans are going to love him. They’re going to love him a lot. So I’m looking forward to, when the world opens back up, going out there to a game and support him. So, yeah, it’s exciting news.”