The Celtics are playing their best basketball in the past few months since the Big Three era and first-year coach Ime Udoka’s primary concern now is to ensure they are playing that way three weeks from now, when the playoffs begin.
There will be challenges, even after such an impressive win Sunday. The 134-112 whitewashing of the Minnesota Timberwolves was the latest of masterpiece performances by a team that is dominating opponents in their path.
An opposing NBA scout shook his head after the game and uttered, “Yeah, they’re really, really good.”
Yet, it was apparent some Celtics may need a break. Robert Williams went limping into the locker room during the fourth quarter and will have an MRI on his ailing left knee Monday. Jaylen Brown was nursing his sore right knee during the fourth quarter, when he was finally removed from the game.
And instead of heading to the exercise bike to keep warm, Jayson Tatum sat at the end of the bench with an ice pack on his knee.
The Celtics have worked feverishly to make this run to No. 1 in the East. After Philadelphia’s loss at Phoenix, the Celtics are tied with the Miami Heat for the top spot in the Eastern Conference, three-plus months after being 18-21 and 8½ games back after that disheartening loss to the New York Knicks.
They are proving to be an elite team. Using a second-quarter run punctuated by Derrick White’s shooting and the offensive prowess of Tatum, the Celtics turned a 4-point lead into a 23-point halftime advantage, against a quality Minnesota team.
Boston lost its first game of this stretch against Western Conference teams to Dallas but have won the past six, including blowouts against the Utah Jazz and Timberwolves. A team that struggled to keep leads now doesn’t lose focus after double-digit leads.
What’s more, the Celtics have won the past six games by an average of 22.3 points. Their only single-digit win came against Oklahoma City March 21.
The Timberwolves used three 3-pointers from former No. 1 pick Anthony Edwards to slice their deficit to 17 early in the third quarter. Boston responded with a 21-11 run, punctuated by a flurry from Tatum and a dunk by Daniel Theis for a 27-point lead.
The Celtics are not messing around anymore with the game. They aren’t playing with possessions and taking low-percentage 3-pointers or making the whipped cream pass when just the right pass will do. They have learned to treat the game honestly and they have been rewarded with this string of wins.
“I think we’re just responding better,” Tatum said. “As much as we can, we try to limit teams and limit guys. There are going to be stretches where they go on runs and hit shots but it’s all about how you respond. Early in the season we struggled with that but we found our identity as of late and we know how to bounce back.”
It’s taken a toll on the roster, however. What the Celtics lack is true depth. Udoka rides his players heavy minutes, such as having four starters on the floor with four minutes left and a 20-plus point lead. It’s apparent Udoka doesn’t trust his bench entirely with precarious leads, but he’s either going to have to get his frontline players some rest or learn to trust reserves.
Tatum said he’s unsure if he’ll play Monday at Toronto, not only a crucial game for the Celtics but more so for the Raptors, who are fighting to stay out of the play-in tournament. The final seven games are important for the Celtics, depending how much they care about securing the No. 1 seed.
Udoka said the main concern is home-court advantage. But it will be nearly impossible for the Celtics to calculate who they will play in the first round and try to avoid particular matchups, especially the Brooklyn Nets.
The quandary is ensuring the players get their rest, retain the same rhythm that has allowed them to win 30 of 37 games and also make sure they get a more favorable first-round playoff matchup, such as Cleveland, Charlotte, Toronto or Atlanta. None of those matchups will be easy, but it’s better than Kyrie Irving, Kevin Durant and perhaps Ben Simmons standing at center circle in Game 1.
The best solution for Udoka may be to play his front-line players the next two games against Toronto and Miami (Wednesday) — then rest players against Indiana and Washington. The Celtics have two full days off after the April 3 Wizards game and another two days off after a Chicago-Milwaukee back-to-back April 6-7.
Depending on the extent of Williams’s injury, he might need multiple days off before the playoffs, even if that means slipping a playoff seed or two.
“I’m not really worried about [seeding],” Udoka said. “Our [concern] is winning, health and playing the best basketball at the right time. It’s too much closeness to try to maneuver and manipulate things to pick an opponent. As far as resting, that’s the main thing. We’ve got some guys who got some nicks now and we have to be smart about it. If we can get guys one [game off] is what we’re looking at now.”
The Celtics also have an open roster spot to perhaps add a 10-day contract for more depth. But Udoka is going to have to make some uneasy decisions over the next two weeks about rest vs. seeding. The injury report is filling up again, and maintenance is the most important priority for a long playoff run.