The Celtics’ comeback was spirited Tuesday, so spirited that Jayson Tatum growled loudly when teammate Al Horford drained a third-quarter 3-pointer during a stunning run that erased a 14-point deficit.
It was inspiring because Boston lost Jaylen Brown three minutes into the game with a right ankle injury that initially looked serious but may just cost him a couple of days.
Coach Ime Udoka was able to patch together a lineup without his second-leading scorer and dominate the Hawks in the second half for an impressive 107-98 comeback win. The Celtics trailed by as many as 17 in the first half and looked frazzled after Brown’s scary injury, but rallied to score the first 14 points of the third quarter and asserted themselves defensively after a porous first half.
The defense was reminiscent of the past few weeks, when the Celtics were locking down opponents and winning ugly. But Brown’s injury is a stark reminder that the team just isn’t that deep.
Luckily, they were able to get 18 points each from Derrick White and Grant Williams, and Tatum’s usual contribution — 33 points — to prevail. But there was something missing, especially with Brown in the locker room.
The Celtics need another body. Udoka said before the game the team was unlikely to explore the buyout market and the number of quality free agents and available players are thin, but it’s possible — and necessary — to enhance the roster.
Udoka rolled with eight guys after Brown’s injury but he was fortunate White and Williams had strong scoring nights. Aaron Nesmith and Payton Pritchard played a combined 36 minutes and scored 3 points. Not that they need to score in bunches, but they did need to hit open shots.
Pritchard has proven capable of making open 3-pointers. Nesmith has yet to prove the same, and it’s reached a point where this is who he is. He’s an energy guy who can play defense and rebound; not a shooter. Nesmith missed all five of his shots – including two 3-pointers – and is now shooting 24.4 percent from the deep this season.
The Celtics can depend on Nesmith to hustle and chase rebounds but not much else. They could use another player as an option, especially if Brown misses a week or two.
The other options on the wing are former two-way contract player Sam Hauser, a rookie, and Kelan Martin and Malik Fitts, who are on 10-day contracts.
While the options are limited, the Celtics should take a look at former Rookie of the Year Tyreke Evans, who was just reinstated to the NBA after a two-year absence for violation of the league’s drug policy. The last time Evans was in the league, he was a quality scorer for the Indiana Pacers.
Of course, the Celtics should do their due background diligence on Evans, but if he has no present issues and is in decent shape, he should get a long look. If that’s too risky, former first-round pick Nik Stauskas scored 57 points in a G League game Wednesday and has extensive NBA experience. He could be another viable option.
There are a few reasons why Boston hasn’t been active in the buyout market. Udoka has had great success recently with an eight-man rotation with occasional appearances by Nesmith and Daniel Theis, and the Celtics don’t want some veteran coming in and seeking considerable minutes, becoming unsatisfied with a smaller role.
Therefore, Boston should bring in players looking to make a roster, with a skill set that could help win a game or two down the stretch. That’s what the Celtics need: another option for Udoka, even if he doesn’t use it. Hauser and two 10-day guys can’t be your only recourse for a team with championship aspirations.
“At the same time, we’ve always said with Payton and Aaron, those are very capable guys,” Udoka said. “The rotation has been shortened but we have full confidence in those guys. Aaron impacted the game without making a shot, did it with his physicality, defense, energy, some offensive rebounds. Those shots didn’t fall but credit him for being ready. Payton will get extended minutes.
“We can go 10 deep comfortably.”
Comfortably may be a stretch. The Celtics are taking their chances when they go into their bench beyond Pritchard. Nesmith will eventually have to score when he’s left open for 3-pointers — he was considered one of the draft’s best shooters in 2020 — but he has yet to prove he can consistently hit even open jumpers.
The club added Matt Ryan, a G League player and considered a premium shooter, to a two-way contract this week. But that adds more future depth than current depth.
Brown’s injury proves the Celtics need to boost their bench because Udoka can’t continue to run eight players out there, expect none to eventually fatigue with heavy minutes, and expect a long playoff run. Experienced players are needed, even for spot duty. President of basketball operations Brad Stevens unloaded Romeo Langford, Josh Richardson, Dennis Schröder, Enes Kanter Freedom, and Bruno Fernando to reshape the roster and acquire White and Theis.
He should replace those losses with one more veteran that can provide minutes in situations like Tuesday, when the Celtics are shorthanded.