The Celtics have known for several days that they would be in the play-in tournament. They left most of the team at home for Sunday’s matchup against the Knicks, resting and recuperating for the next game that matters.
But for New York, a team that had not played a meaningful season-finale in years, the stakes remained high as it tried to secure homecourt advantage in the first round of the playoffs. The Knicks appeared prepared to accept the free pass from their division rivals, especially when they led by 17 points with just over eight minutes left.
Then point guard Tremont Waters ignited a 20-4 run and pulled the Celtics within 1 point on a steal and layup with 2:14 left. But Boston’s surge stalled there. Knicks center Nerlens Noel had a pair of big blocks and helped hold the Celtics scoreless for the rest of the game, as New York grabbed a 96-92 win.
Boston finished its regular season at 36-36, a humbling result for a team that came within two wins of the NBA Finals last season. Nevertheless, there will be a chance at redemption.
The Celtics will host the Wizards in a play-in tournament game on Tuesday at 9 p.m. The winner will be the No. 7 seed in the playoffs, and the loser will face the winner of the other play-in game between the Pacers and Hornets, to determine the No. 8 seed.
“We have not been perfect,” coach Brad Stevens said. “That’s been well-documented. We’ve dealt with a lot of negativity and we’ve stayed together. I think that’s the most important thing you can do. We have to just stay together and reset now, get ready with great preparation tomorrow and play our best that we’ve played this year this week.”
On Sunday, Waters led the Celtics with 17 points, 5 rebounds and 5 assists, and Jabari Parker added 18 points. Jayson Tatum, Kemba Walker, Marcus Smart, Robert Williams, Evan Fournier and Tristan Thompson all sat out. Fournier and Tatum played against the Timberwolves on Saturday and were the only two from that group that were even on this road trip. Most, if not all, of those players will be back on Tuesday.
“We’ll be prepared,” Stevens said. “I have no doubt about that.”
Observations from the game:
▪ The Celtics went 2-1 against the Wizards this season, with both wins coming at TD Garden. They grabbed a 111-110 victory on Feb. 28 despite the absences of Jaylen Brown and Smart, and took a 116-107 win on Jan. 8 without Walker.
But the Wizards have found their groove since then, with an invigorated Russell Westbrook leading them to 17 wins in their last 23 games, the second-best record in the NBA over that span.
“Obviously, Washington is rolling,” Stevens said. “They’re a heck of a basketball team. It starts with Westbrook and [Bradley] Beal. They’ve got great size. They’ve got a lot of different ways they can play. They can go small with Ish Smith and [Raul] Neto and with those guards be super-fast and hard to keep in front. They can go way bigger with shooting, with posting. They’re a handful.”
▪ Stevens said last week that this two-game stretch would serve as a kind of final audition for players hoping to nudge into Boston’s playoff rotation. There were no stars, but Romeo Langford probably had the most productive and promising weekend.
He followed up a strong game against the Timberwolves with another solid outing against the Knicks, scoring 14 points. He was involved in several good moments in the first half, including a steal and a dunk, a pretty feed to Grant Williams for a layup, and a smooth finish on a fast-break. Remember, Langford made his season debut less than six weeks ago, and Stevens trusted him as a defensive stopper as a rookie in last season’s playoffs before he suffered a season-ending adductor strain.
“The guys who stood out from my perspective were certainly Romeo and Tremont,” Stevens said. “They both did a good job today.”
▪ When end-of-rotation players get opportunities, they are hoping to show that they deserve more playing time. But they are also auditioning for the rest of the NBA. With Walker, Smart, and Payton Pritchard all under contract for next season, and just a general need for a bit of a shakeup, it seems unlikely that Waters will be back next year.
But over the last two games he has shown that he can have an impact when given a chance. The second-year two-way contract player averaged 15.5 points, 6 assists, 2.5 rebounds and 1 steal while playing 23.5 minutes per game this weekend. He sparked Boston’s fourth-quarter rally Sunday by tallying 13 points and 3 assists.
“Whenever my time is called I want to be able to make the right decisions, know when to do what, and also run the team,” Waters said.
▪ Tacko Fall checked in early in the first quarter and had a positive impact. He had a nice block against All-Star Julius Randle and finished a couple of chances inside. But his best work came on the offensive glass. He was credited with three offensive rebounds, but kept several other missed shots alive. On one missed shot, he did well to tap the ball away and then chase it down before firing a pass to Carsen Edwards for a 3-pointer. He finished with 3 points, 8 rebounds and 3 blocks in 16:36. Fall has not shown that he is ready to be a regular NBA contributor, but he has certainly displayed improvement.