The Celtics have recaptured a portion of their pride and swagger in the past two games with victories over the Indiana Pacers and Washington Wizards, and the Eastern Conference is wide open for the Celtics to take in the final 38 games.
Boston enters Tuesday’s game with the Los Angeles Clippers five games back of the Philadelphia 76ers for first place in the conference. That margin is not insurmountable but several things have to happen for the Celtics to be a real contender in the East.
The good news for Celtics’ faithful is Kemba Walker is beginning to resemble the player who sparkled in his first two months with the team. He scored 32 points in the win over the Pacers and came back with 21 against the Wizards.
Walker doesn’t need to score 30 every night but he has to hit the open shot, attack the basket, and be a constant threat on the floor. And if you look at Walker’s numbers in February — 20.3 points, 3.9 rebounds, 4.5 assists – the only issue was his 2-point shooting. Walker is shooting 41.7 percent on 2-point shots, well below his 45.3 percent average.
Walker needs to improve in that category, especially finishing at the rim. And the schedule allows Walker an opportunity to play and become more comfortable. The Celtics only play two back-to-back sets in March, meaning Walker will only miss two of the team’s 14 games this month to rest his left knee, allowing him to get more continuity.
The Celtics also need to make a deal before the March 25 deadline. President of basketball operations Danny Ainge has said the team likely will not use the full $28.5 million trade exception until the summer, but the Celtics need a bench addition. They suffer from a lack of production from the reserves and a 3-point shooter who can knock down open shots.
It’s almost unfair to rely on rookie Payton Pritchard to be the highest-scoring reserve, but he is at 7.4 points per game. The return of Marcus Smart will greatly help the defense, stabilize the backcourt and perhaps send either Daniel Theis or Tristan Thompson back to the bench.
We’ve seen how important Smart is to not only the defense but providing offensive support to Jaylen Brown and Jayson Tatum. He will definitely help but the Celtics need more. Some interesting developments have occurred in the past few weeks regarding Boston trade targets.
The Sacramento Kings were 12-11 after a win at the Clippers two days after the Celtics beat Los Angeles. They have lost 10 of 11 since, including a Sunday debacle to Charlotte in which they led by 8 points with 56 seconds left. Harrison Barnes, second on the team with 16.6 points per game and also shooting 40.3 percent from the 3-point line, could become available if Sacramento decides to rebuild again.
Coach Luke Walton has been on the hot seat since the season began and the Kings are now four games behind the 10th spot in the Western Conference. The Kings may be a week or two from making some changes. Their next two games are against the Lakers and Portland Trail Blazers. They also embark on a six-game road trip to the East Coast (including Boston) that may determine their fate.
The Orlando Magic are 7-19 since starting 6-2 and could be looking for a reboot with players such as Terrence Ross and Aaron Gordon available. But those decisions could come down to the March 25 deadline because two additional playoff spots are available this season.
As for the Celtics roster, they’ll need players such as Jeff Teague, Semi Ojeleye and Grant Williams to play better. Also, it wouldn’t be a bad idea for coach Brad Stevens to give more minutes to Robert Williams, who actually leads the team in player efficiency rating. Williams has shown he’s comfortable in a high-level NBA setting and while Stevens suggested a minutes limit for a 23-year-old center, it doesn’t appear Williams is showing signs of wearing down. He needs to play more.
Ainge has failed Stevens by not adding veteran reinforcements to the bench, so for now the only alternative is for those reserves to improve. Javonte Green has played well when given the opportunity and he is responding to challenges of being a defensive factor against shooting guards.
It appears Stevens has pulled rookie Aaron Nesmith back out of the rotation — he hasn’t played meaningful minutes in three games — along with Carsen Edwards, who had some moments a few weeks ago. Stevens can’t play everybody and it appears he gave everybody a tryout earlier in the season.
Tightening his rotations and deciding on roles to get the reserves more comfortable is a must. The Celtics are listing Brown as questionable for Tuesday’s game against the Clippers and it will be interesting to see how many minutes Brown will play in the All-Star Game. Stevens could give a call to either Quin Snyder or Doc Rivers and suggest they limit Brown’s minutes. But the fact Brown could potentially miss two games with this knee soreness — after missing two on the West Coast road trip last month — indicates this is something the Celtics need to monitor the rest of the season.
The All-Star Break could prove crucial for the Celtics. They’ll go six days without a game, giving Walker a chance to get further rest for his knee, and Brown and Tatum shouldn’t exert themselves too much during All-Star Sunday.
The Celtics have a lot of work to do but a second-half run is possible but it will take improvement from the players, coaching staff and especially the front office.