There is no NCAA-like selection committee that will evaluate the quality of the Celtics’ wins when the playoffs arrive. No one will deduct points for victories that came against depleted opponents.
But it’s impossible to ignore the fact that during most of the team’s surge over the past month, it has faced teams that are either bottom feeders,missing key pieces, or both. There are plenty of opportunities to have letdowns in these situations. The Celtics did not, and they deserve credit for that.
Still, it has been challenging to get a true gauge of the team’s progress considering there has been a glaring lack of playoff-level competition. That’s about to change.
Boston’s upcoming schedule is filled with teams that are powerful and getting healthy, and it starts with Thursday night’s home game against Ja Morant and the Grizzlies. After that, the Nets come to town Sunday. Boston feasted against Brooklyn’s depleted roster last month, but the Nets are expected to have Kevin Durant and Kyrie Irving available this time.
The Celtics have the fourth-most difficult remaining schedule in the NBA, with their opponents registering a combined winning percentage of .531.
Forward Al Horford said that even though there were some less challenging games recently, the Celtics used the time to fully build their identity as a gritty, defense-first squad, and that there is value in that.
“I feel like that gauging part is kind of over,” Horford said. “I feel like we’ve established who we are, what we’re about, how we want to play, what we can do. I’m more excited about the level of competition that we are going to face.”
As much as Boston’s recent run was helped by weaker opponents, it’s also true that Boston’s early-season struggles could be attributed to its own health issues. And on Thursday night they’ll be without Jaylen Brown, sidelined because of a sprained ankle.
Brown suffered the injury in the opening minutes of Boston’s win over the Hawks on Tuesday. He walked back to the locker room without a limp and tried to convince the team’s training staff to let him return to the game, but was held out as a precaution.
“Still had the adrenaline, wasn’t swelling as much,” Celtics coach Ime Udoka said. “But overnight it did and he has some pain. But like I said, nothing long-term. I’m not sure of the severity of the grade, but it didn’t look like anything major that he’d be out for weeks.”
Brown’s absence will make it even more challenging for the Celtics to slow down Morant, the third-year point guard who is in the midst of an MVP-caliber season. He is averaging 27.6 points, 6.6 assists, and 5.9 rebounds per game, helping Memphis (43-20) vault into third place in the Western Conference. Morant erupted for 52 points in the Grizzlies’ win over the Spurs on Monday.
“Just so impressed by how relentless [Morant] is and how he’s gotten better,” Horford said. “You see him getting to the basket, which is impressive, but also shooting the ball. He’s shooting the ball pretty well from the 3-point line and just being very aggressive, very free. Their team in general, they play the right way. They move the ball, everybody seems to know their role. They are a very fun team to watch. It’s a big challenge for our group but we feel like it’s going to be good for us to play against them.”