What stopped the Celtics from really getting a full grasp on their reshaped roster is the same issue that helped derail their 2020-21 season: the COVID-19 protocol.
Jaylen Brown was limited to one preseason game and Al Horford sat out because of positive COVID-19 tests. Dennis Schröder missed a game with a sore knee and Marcus Smart was suspended for the preseason finale because of a violation of team rules. So new coach Ime Udoka was relegated to patchwork lineups, and only got to see his designed first and second units for only the first half of the first game.
What he found out in the preseason, however, is that his roster is deep and playing time is doing to be difficult to get. The starting lineup is close to being set with Brown, Tatum, Robert Williams, and Smart locked into their spots, with Horford or Juancho Hernangómez as the fifth starter.
Schröder and Josh Richardson will come off the bench with either Horford and Hernangómez, with Peyton Pritchard, Aaron Nesmith, Grant Williams, Enes Kanter, and Romeo Langford fighting it out for the likely final two rotation slots.
While COVID again had an impact on the roster, the Celtics came away from the preseason healthy and digesting Udoka’s system.
“I definitely think we’re ready,” Smart said. “I’m not saying we’re perfect. I’m not saying we’re exactly where we want to be, but to start the season, we’re ready to go. We’re ready to play against some other competition besides ourselves when it really means something. For the most part, we’re ready to get the ball going.”
With just four preseason games and most of the core players sitting out Wednesday’s loss to the Toronto Raptors, the Celtics did not have much game experience to show their progress. The progress was accomplished in practice and it became apparent that players who needed to take a step forward did.
Langford, who has been besieged with injuries in his first two seasons, looks as if he will be an important component as a slasher to the basket and defender. Udoka is going to have to find minutes, and Langford could potentially split time with Richardson in defending bigger guards and small forwards.
“He’s had to take on a bigger load with Jaylen being out,” Udoka said of Langford. “He’s taken the challenge. He’s shown us that in training camp, and now he’s translating that to the game. We talked about that with our young guys. We want to see them take a step in their progression and growth. He’s taken advantage of his time with guys being out. We want him to stay aggressive.
“For the most part, he’s doing what we ask offensively and defensively. He’s a great playmaker and facilitator as well. He brings a lot to the table.”
The key for Langford was staying healthy, which he did, and showing that he can be a capable backup. A major issue with the Celtics last season was depth and then-coach Brad Stevens had little options after his starters.
Udoka now has options, and that has been apparent.
“I think it was a successful preseason,” Langford said. “It was new for all of us with a new coaching staff and scheme. I think we played well and we had a lot of learning experiences with different rotations and guys playing with each other. I think there is a lot that we can take over to the next couple of practices leading up to the first game.”
The Celtics needed to learn whether Brown was healthy and back to form, and he scored 26 points in 25 minutes in his lone appearance. They needed to learn if Horford could contribute at age 35. He can. They needed to see if Tatum could become more of a playmaker. He showed that.
The preseason was far from perfect. The Celtics would have liked to see more of Brown with the new players. Schröder missed a game with knee soreness and played limited minutes. It will take more than a few days for the Celtics to develop real chemistry and for Udoka to develop rotations and combinations that he trusts.
But the Udoka tenure is off to a promising start. He implemented his discipline on Smart for his violation of team rules, but that matter appears to be settled. The players commented that training camp was fiercely competitive and they welcomed such an atmosphere.
The Celtics are in a good place three days before their opening game, it’s just a matter of getting Brown and Horford back and improving their mental focus and fortitude during games.
“We have to believe in these guys and show them how much they mean to us,” Udoka said. “At the same time, they have to show us their growth on their side. The team will take a big step if they grow like we need them to. We have a good mix of veterans and young guys. We are hoping that they all step up together and collectively.”