ORLANDO — Nearly three weeks ago in their NBA bubble debut, the Celtics were dusted by the Oklahoma City Thunder. They were complete strangers to the new environment, short of being in full basketball shape, and still trying to devise a plan to use All-Star guard Kemba Walker as he recovers from a troublesome left knee.
The Celtics, in their full form, neared the end of their seeding games Tuesday with an impressing 122-107 win over the Memphis Grizzlies at The Arena, improving to 5-2 with just a meaningless game against the Washington Wizards separating them from the start of the playoffs.
Boston will take the floor for its playoff opener on Monday or Tuesday, most likely against the Philadelphia 76ers, who appear resigned to their fate of facing their fiercest rivals, having sat several starters for their loss Tuesday to Phoenix.
The loss to the surging Suns has pretty much ensured the Sixers will face the Celtics next week in the latest of the teams’ compelling playoff matchups.
While 76ers will be without All-Star Ben Simmons, who underwent knee surgery after an injury in the bubble, they still offer a major challenge to the Celtics with Joel Embiid, Tobias Harris, former Celtic Al Horford, and Josh Richardson.
The Celtics also appeared to have finished their seeding games without any injuries. The only Celtic on the injury report prior to Tuesday’s game was Daniel Theis (sore foot), who played only 18 minutes. Brad Stevens treated the game as if it were a playoff audition, using his frontline players for much of the game despite being locked into the third seed.
The Grizzlies, who arrived in Orlando with a 3½-game lead for the eighth seed in the Western Conference, had lost five of their six games and desperately needed a win.
Instead it was the Celtics who took the lead for good after the first 68 seconds, keeping the pesky Grizzlies away with their array of weapons, including Walker, who hit three field goals in the first six minutes after recording one Sunday against the Orlando Magic.
Sitting in his Zoom interview with his WNBA sweater and Yankees cap (“Boston fans gonna kill me,” he said), Walker declared himself nearly completely recovered and the Celtics in a good place.
“I think we’re pretty close to being ready, especially after [Tuesday’s win],” he said. “Last game [Sunday against the Magic], we didn’t play so well. Tonight we were really focused and locked in. We knew that Memphis was gonna come out and just play hard. We’ve definitely come a long way and [we’re] jelling really well, having fun, competing at a very high level.
“I think we’re pretty ready.”
What we have learned so far is coach Brad Stevens is trusting Robert Williams more, as he contributed 10 points, 7 rebounds, and 3 blocked shots in 14 minutes.
We are also learning how impactful a healthy Gordon Hayward can be. He averaged 18.7 points in the first seven seeding games and those hesitations and yips from last season have dissipated.
The Celtics will take Wednesday off, play a noon game against the Wizards on Thursday where we can expect to see a lot of Tacko Fall, Tremont Waters, and Vincent Poirier while the regular rotation players get a break. Then comes the preparation for, most likely, Philadelphia.
Indiana has a chance to drop to sixth but would have to lose its final two games while the 76ers would have to win their last two.
“We have assistants that are assigned to all the different opponents that we may or may not play,” Stevens said. “They all do that work and I keep my eyes on one or two [teams] that I think are most likely. Advance scouting is a difficult role and it certainly is nice to be all in one place.”
Embiid did not play Tuesday and it’s uncertain if he will play in Philadelphia’s final two games against the Toronto Raptors and Houston Rockets. The Celtics have had trouble with behemoth centers before and after the pandemic, but they were able to limit Memphis’ Jonas Valanciunas, who finished with 14 points and 10 boards in 25 minutes.
The Celtics are who they are at this point, an extremely skilled offensive team with various weapons and an effective defensive team susceptible to big centers. They are going to face the best in the NBA beginning next week but they are also perhaps playing their best basketball of the season.
After the disappointing loss to Miami on Aug. 4, the Celtics scored 149 against the Brooklyn Nets and followed with 122 in each of the past three games. Hayward looks as sharp as he has in his Celtics tenure. After Jayson Tatum’s miserable 2-for-18 shooting performance against Milwaukee on July 31, he averaged 25.3 points and shot 53.6 percent from the field in the past six games.
Jaylen Brown is freely attacking the rim and draining threes while the bench has played well and been able to produce points with the starters on the bench. So it looks like the Celtics are ready for the 76ers. They have accomplished their goal in the seeded games and now await the official word that the rivalry will be renewed.
“Yeah I think we’re ready,” Tatum said. “Obviously we continue to get better from Game 1. We get better every game and that’s what you want.”