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From the trade deadline to Aaron Nesmith’s absence, seven thoughts on the Celtics

Top pick Aaron Nesmith has once again vanished from the rotation, playing a total of nine minutes over the last seven games.Jim Davis/Globe Staff

The Celtics’ four-game winning streak has been wiped away by yet another stumble. They have lost three of their last four games, including a setback against the lowly Cavaliers, to slip back to .500. Here are seven thoughts about the state of the team.

▪ In addition to their massive $28.5 million trade exception, the Celtics also have a $4.8 million exception from the deal that sent Enes Kanter to Portland and a $2.5 million exception after trading Vincent Poirier to Philadelphia.

But it’s worth remembering that they don’t have to use any of them to make a deal prior to next Thursday’s deadline. Or, since they are hard-capped and unable to use the entire Gordon Hayward exception outright until the summer, they could add a player to a deal using it now to make up the difference.

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Center Tristan Thompson would seem to be the most likely player to depart in both scenarios. He is on the first year of a two-year, $19 million contract, and the emergence of Robert Williams could make him more expendable.

But the Celtics are 0-2 this week since Thompson was sidelined under COVID-19 protocols, and league sources have indicated that the Celtics remain quite high on the veteran center. He was not signed as a stopgap or a future trade piece during the offseason; they truly targeted him as a priority.

▪ Another thing to keep in mind as the trade deadline approaches: The Celtics are quite unlikely to make a deal for a veteran whose impact won’t be obviously greater than the player or players whose minutes he takes, especially at the expense of the development of Boston’s younger players. But the biggest need is at power forward, and an addition there wouldn’t really eat into the opportunities of players such as Williams or rookie Payton Pritchard, or even Romeo Langford.

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▪ The early Brad Stevens teams seemed to be constructed around fiery, competitive players who would rather eat something that had just fallen onto a dirty floor than lose a basketball game. Players such as Jae Crowder, Isaiah Thomas, and Marcus Morris made it clear how much they hated to lose.

Brad Stevens checks out the action late in the fourth quarter of a recent game.John Tlumacki/Globe Staff

Marcus Smart was a member of those teams, too, and he certainly still qualifies. There is no statistic for this, and it’s certainly tougher to gauge a locker room during this COVID-19 era in which reporters are not allowed in, but sometimes it’s hard to tell how much losing actually bothers this group.

▪ Langford has dealt with just about every injury imaginable over the last two years and finally was ready to make his season debut last Thursday against the Nets before he was sidelined under COVID-19 protocols. This appears to be more than a contact tracing situation, since Langford remains out more than a week later.

But within the organization, there is still real optimism about the second-year wing’s potential. The Celtics believe he will become a key piece, this season, for a bench unit that could use a jolt.

▪ It’s been a year of inconsistent opportunity for rookie wing Aaron Nesmith. After essentially starting the season out of the rotation, the 14th overall pick seemingly had inched up the depth chart with his hustle and defense. He averaged just over 23 minutes during a six-game stretch in February.

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But he has once again vanished from the rotation, playing a total of just nine minutes over the last seven games. The Celtics are getting healthier, but they were without Langford, Thompson, and Kemba Walker against the Cavs Wednesday, and Nesmith still didn’t play.

Jaylen Brown is averaging just under 40 minutes in the last three non-blowout contests, so Stevens appears willing to push his stars more to find a way out of this rut.

Jaylen Brown goes strong to the basket during a recent game against Toronto.John Tlumacki/Globe Staff

▪ It’s hard to see the Celtics’ path to a top-three seed in the Eastern Conference. They entered Thursday tied for sixth, six games behind the third-place Bucks, with just 32 games left in this condensed season.

Their hope would have been to at least lock up the No. 4 seed relatively early to secure home-court advantage in the first round. But that will likely be a challenge, too, with the Celtics a game and a half behind fourth-place Miami. The Celtics have the 18th-hardest remaining schedule, while Miami’s is the 15th most difficult.

The disaster scenario for the Celtics would be slipping to the No. 6 seed, where a first-round matchup against the 76ers, Nets, or Bucks would await. Given their place in the standings, it actually would be best for the Celtics if arenas remain at relatively low fan capacity for the next few months.

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▪ It was nice to see former Celtics assistant coach Micah Shrewsberry get hired by Penn State, finally getting the head college job he has been seeking for years.

Former Celtics' assistant Micah Shrewsberry recently landed the head coaching job at Penn State.Jim Davis/Globe Staff

Shrewsberry and Stevens have known each other since high school, and Shrewsberry served on Stevens’s staff at Butler before joining him on the Celtics bench in 2013.

He often was tasked with organizing the defense and developed a reputation as one of the game’s brighter young minds. But his lack of head coaching experience hurt him, as he was turned down for jobs at schools such as St. Joseph’s and UMass. He had been an assistant at Purdue for the last two seasons before being hired by the Nittany Lions.

Stevens and Shrewsberry remain very close. Stevens’s teenage son, Brady, even spent a week with Shrewsberry and his family in Indiana this winter.


Adam Himmelsbach can be reached at adam.himmelsbach@globe.com. Follow him @adamhimmelsbach.