A few thoughts on the Celtics as they prepare to close the regular season with a three-game road trip against the Bulls, Bucks, and Grizzlies…
▪ Even before Robert Williams suffered the knee injury that will likely keep him out 4-6 weeks, Celtics coach Ime Udoka said that one of the priorities for the regular season’s stretch run was helping backup center Daniel Theis find a rhythm and get comfortable with the team’s system. Theis, who was acquired from the Rockets in February, knows most of the Celtics from his first stint here, but he still needed to adjust to Udoka’s system and his role in it.
And the recent results have been encouraging. Over the Celtics’ last 15 games, the Celtics have outscored opponents by 17 points per 100 possessions with Theis on the court. Among Boston’s regular rotation players, that net rating during this stretch ranks behind only Williams and Jayson Tatum. President of basketball operations Brad Stevens made a slightly risky play when he added a 30-year-old third-string center who is in the first season of a four-year, $36.5 million deal, but Williams’s injury history and Al Horford’s age factored in, and now Theis is in line to be a valuable playoff piece.
▪ Speaking of Williams, it’s worth mentioning that the Celtics generally release injury timelines slightly longer than the team actually anticipates. “Returning ahead of schedule” always sounds better than “had a setback.” Williams could still have an actual setback, of course, and the team will be cautious with him, but don’t be stunned if he’s back on the earlier side of the initial 4-6 week projection.
▪ The Celtics are closing the season with a slightly unusual road trip. They have games on back-to-back nights against the Bulls and Bucks before getting two days off and facing the Grizzlies on Sunday. But the team has minimized its travel plans.
The Celtics arrived in Chicago on Tuesday and will essentially stay there until Saturday. They’ll take a bus to Milwaukee for Thursday’s game against the Bucks before returning to Chicago that night. They’ll spend their off days in the Windy City, too, even going to the Cubs’ game against the Brewers at Wrigley Field on Friday afternoon.
“Obviously a nice place to be and a chance to catch a game,” Udoka said. “I’m not the biggest baseball fan but something the guys want to do. And so we’ll go check it out.”
▪ The Celtics could be tired of Chicago by month’s end, however. There remains a good chance that these teams will meet in the first round of the playoffs. The Celtics entered Tuesday night in second place in the Eastern Conference, a half-game ahead of the Bucks and 76ers. The Bulls and Raptors were tied for fifth.
It will be interesting to see whether teams try to maneuver in the regular season’s final days in an attempt to set up preferred matchups. But the standings remain congested and there are so many teams involved, so it will be difficult.
Boston would rather avoid a first-round matchup against Toronto because Canada’s COVID-19 vaccine mandate could keep at least one of the Celtics from playing in road games in the series. That would certainly not be ideal, but Boston would still be the favorite in that matchup. Last Monday, a Celtics team missing Jayson Tatum, Jaylen Brown, Robert Williams, and Al Horford took a full-strength Raptors team to overtime in Toronto. What’s more, the Celtics would have home-court advantage, so they wouldn’t even need to win a road game to win the series.
But if they do play Toronto and any players are sidelined due to their refusal to take the COVID-19 vaccine, it would become a significant distraction. The Celtics have consistently declined to comment on their vaccine status. Brown and Horford, whose status remains unclear, have said that they will be ready to play anywhere when the playoffs arrive.
▪ Marcus Smart’s Defensive Player of the Year candidacy has received plenty of attention in recent weeks. Smart thinks it’s ridiculous that no guard has won the award since Sonics star Gary Payton did in 1996.
Smart’s impact on Boston’s defense is obvious, but some stats do not help his case. The Celtics are allowing 105 points per 100 possessions with Smart on the court. On its own, that’s an excellent defensive rating. But it hardly stands out on this team. In fact, it is worse than the defensive ratings of all of Boston’s regular rotation players other than Grant Williams and Payton Pritchard. As a team, Boston has a 105.2 defensive rating when Smart is on the bench, essentially identical to when he plays.
Defensive real plus/minus is a similar advanced stat that essentially measures how many fewer points a team allows per 100 possessions with a certain player on the court versus the league average. The Celtics have some sparkling DRPM numbers, with Al Horford (3rd), Robert Williams (10th), and Jayson Tatum (15th) all ranking in the league’s top 15. Smart, meanwhile, sits 49th.
▪ Look, it’s hard to doubt any team that includes Kevin Durant. And if Brooklyn advances out of the play-in tournament — no sure thing at this point — a first-round matchup against Durant, Kyrie Irving, and the Nets would certainly not be a gift for a team that worked to climb to the top of the Eastern Conference.
But suggestions that this Brooklyn team will suddenly flip a switch and blitz to the Finals seem like a stretch. There are some extremely talented teams atop the East, and they would all have home-court advantage in a series against Brooklyn. And the Nets have real, visible flaws, most notably their porous defense that is unlikely to hold up well in the postseason. Unless the Nets somehow unveil a healthy and confident Ben Simmons, which is extremely unlikely at this point, this Brooklyn team will probably have an early exit.
Adam Himmelsbach can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow him on Twitter @adamhimmelsbach.