ORLANDO — As encouraged as the Celtics feel after their 119-112 loss to the Milwaukee Bucks on Friday night in the resumption opener, a game that was essentially decided on one play, a disputed block call on Marcus Smart, their immediate goal needs to be winning because they have much at stake in these seeding games.
The Miami Heat dusted the shorthanded Denver Nuggets on Saturday afternoon and are now just 1½ games behind the Celtics for the third seed and the two teams meet Tuesday. Home-court advantage doesn’t matter in this NBA bubble, but seeding does.
The Celtics don’t want to drop to fourth, which could result in a gauntlet of playoff opponents. The Philadelphia 76ers, Toronto Raptors, and then the Bucks could be the result. That would be the worst-case scenario for Boston, which has entered these seeding games just trying to stay healthy and gain cohesion.
There were some good signs in those directions Friday. The Celtics didn’t play well enough to win, however, because of minor slippage that allowed the Bucks to score easy baskets after the Celtics would make runs. A George Hill driving layup. A Robin Lopez stepback 3-pointer. Too many second-chance baskets allowed on defense or rushed shots on offense.
And most egregiously was the 2-for-18 performance by Jayson Tatum and one of those baskets was only credited to Tatum because he was closest to Wesley Matthews when he knocked a defensive rebound into the Celtics’ basket. The Celtics need the best of Tatum nearly every night. Friday was the worst possible time for him to deal with confidence issues and start pressing.
The good news for the Celtics is Tatum has a propensity to bounce back big from poor games. After his 5-of-17 shooting performance on Oct. 26 against the New York Knicks, Tatum responded with 25 points on 10-for-22 shooting against the Bucks.
After a 1-for-18 performance Nov. 11 against the Dallas Mavericks, Tatum scored 23 points on 9 for 20 against the Washington Wizards. Tatum went 2 for 16 against Atlanta on Jan. 3 and then 12 for 15 a night later in Chicago. And a week later he went 4 for 13 against the 76ers, then 16 for 22 for 41 points against the New Orleans Pelicans.
And All-Star-caliber Tatum will be needed Sunday when the Celtics meet the desperate Portland Trail Blazers, who began their quest for a playoff spot with an overtime victory over the Memphis Grizzlies. For the Celtics to be at their best, retain the third seed and give themselves an easier playoff road, Tatum needs to be sharp.
During the four-month suspension, Tatum’s name was mentioned as perhaps an MVP candidate for this resumption. And the Celtics have been viewed as a team that could make an NBA Finals run. Some have noticed that Tatum may have gained some muscle during the break.
“I think the most important thing is I want to try to win every game,” Tatum said. “That was the toughest part is I didn’t play well and we lost. I felt like I could have done more. But honestly, I said a lot, I hear [the hype] but I don’t pay too much attention to it. When people say good things or bad, I never let it really bother me. We play [Sunday]. I can’t get no worse, so I think I’ll play better.”
That’s almost guaranteed. But if the Celtics use these seeding games to merely prepare for the playoffs, they could slip to fourth or even fifth in the East. There are two easily winnable games — Brooklyn and Washington — the other remaining five will not be easy.
The Celtics can’t afford to fall behind in any game 17-2, and they have been guilty of painfully slow starts this season. Being encouraged is understandable — Kemba Walker was strong in his 19 minutes, Smart looked like he was in midseason form, Jaylen Brown was assertive despite foul trouble — but it’s too late in the season for the Celtics to accept moral victories.
Milwaukee was missing two rotation players. And like the Celtics, they also hadn’t played in four months, so it is guaranteed to be better if the two teams meet again. The Celtics should be hungry and angry Sunday against the Trail Blazers, who may have the league’s best guard combination in Damian Lillard and CJ McCollum.
Yet, it’s time for the Celtics some have projected to unseat Toronto and Milwaukee in the East to show up. The resumption just started and there are a handful of games for the club to improve, but it would be encouraging for this organization if it began consistently playing to its potential.
Friday was a solid start but the Celtics still lost. Miami is gaining and there is no guarantee the Celtics aren’t playing themselves into a first-round matchup with Philadelphia, a team no one honestly wants to see in the playoffs. So it’s time, Celtics. Time for Jayson Tatum to show his All-Star form. Time to avoid a putrid start and time for the Celtics to play like the hungry and formidable team they claim to be.