In what is turning into a special season, the Celtics responded Sunday from a minor rut to blow out the Washington Wizards, 144-102, at TD Garden.
There is a legitimate chance the Celtics could claim the No. 1 seed in the Eastern Conference, with games at Chicago, Milwaukee and Memphis left to determine that fate. Jayson Tatum is playing like the all-around playmaker coach Ime Udoka has desired all season.
Jaylen Brown appears finally healthy and completely locked in offensively, scoring 32 points in the Celtics’ brilliant offensive effort.
What could derail this season, however, is the team entering the playoffs without all players vaccinated. The Celtics refuse to say publicly whether all their players are vaccinated, as some teams have declared. And according to an NBA source, at least two frontline players are not vaccinated, which would prevent those two players from participating in road games in a playoff series against the Toronto Raptors.
The fast-rising Raptors and Celtics could potentially meet in a first-round series, and the Celtics would need all of their healthy roster to win that series.
When the Celtics visited Toronto last week, three players did not make the trip. Tatum was nursing a sore knee but he has stated he was vaccinated after contracting COVID twice. Al Horford missed that Toronto game for personal seasons and Brown also stayed in Boston to rest a sore knee.
Horford said after the Celtics’ loss Wednesday to Miami that he will be ready to play wherever when the playoffs begin. That’s not a declaration he’s vaccinated but perhaps an indication he would if the Raptors were the opponent.
As for Brown, he said after his 32-point outing Sunday that as a committee member of the NBA Players Association he works to fight for the rights of players. The NBPA has steadfastly fought against mandatory vaccination for players, and while the NBA claims 97 percent of its membership got the shot, there are a handful of players who haven’t.
That includes former Celtic Kyrie Irving, who has been the poster boy of individualism and selfishness from critics this season for his refusal to be vaccinated and therefore banned from playing home games in Brooklyn. That rule has been recently changed by New York mayor Eric Adams, but it required the two New York baseball teams, each littered with unvaccinated players, to pressure Adams to change the ordinance.
Canada took further measures after the Omicron variant developed and first banned fans from Scotiabank Arena before mandating that all athletes participating in games there be vaccinated.
“Last year, I missed the playoffs, I had a season-ending injury with my wrist,” Brown said. “And this year, from a competitive standpoint, I’m excited and ready to play against anybody. As the vice president of the Players Association, it’s a part of my job description to protect our players’ rights and our medical privacy so you won’t hear me comment on my status or anybody else’s. That’s how I feel about it.”
Horford and Brown said they are eager for the postseason and will be ready to play against any opponent. That does not necessarily mean they’re vaccinated or will be by game time. They could potentially make the same sacrifice — or stubborn stance, however you view it — as Irving and play that Toronto series strictly at home and hope the Celtics prevail.
Udoka as well as president of basketball operations Brad Stevens have spoken on the issue but never specially addressed whether the team is fully vaccinated. Couldn’t the Celtics over these last three games ensure they don’t face Toronto in the first round and eliminate the issue altogether (unless the Raptors win their first-round series)?
Claiming the No. 1 or 2 seed likely would accomplish that. The Raptors are making a bid for the fifth seed, so the Celtics finishing in the top three would eliminate a possibility of that first-round matchup.
“You don’t have those discussions, honestly, it’s a personal choice,” Udoka said when asked if he has talked vaccination status with his players. “Everybody, it’s up to them. That’s their decision. It’s been two years now that that’s all been on the table and everybody knows the restrictions, so we leave that up to the guys, it’s their personal choice. Not much discussion we have with them.
“Everybody in the NBA knows restrictions in certain places, obviously, New York and Los Angeles mandates and Toronto changing their restrictions lately. It’s something that’s well known around the league, but it’s nothing we try to influence or discuss with anybody.”
Obviously, the decision to be vaccinated is not as easy to some as others. There’s a “just get the shot” mentality that has some players feeling forced into vaccination or facing long-term public scrutiny.
It’s up to the Celtics to provide as much information to their unvaccinated players, outline the pros and cons physically and make sure this is not a dilemma in less than two weeks.
The worst thing the Celtics can do is what they’re doing now, avoiding the topic, tabling any discussion and praying they don’t face the Raptors. There’s got to be a better approach than that.