The Celtics reached the NBA’s All-Star weekend in a tight race with the Milwaukee Bucks for the No. 1 seed in the Eastern Conference and as clear title favorites. But fortunes can shift suddenly, and this team is focused on ensuring that it maintains its perch as the playoffs inch closer.
Here are the story lines that Globe writers Adam Himmelsbach and Gary Washburn will be watching as the Celtics head into the latter part of the season and turn their focus toward the biggest prize.
1. How will the Celtics manage Jayson Tatum’s workload?
Adam Himmelsbach: Tatum is averaging 37.3 minutes a game, a career high, second in the NBA behind Pascal Siakam, and well ahead of other MVP candidates like Nikola Jokic and Giannis [Antetokounmpo].
He’s talked about battling some left wrist soreness and has it taped up during games. And after some of these high-minute games, he’ll say, “I’m exhausted.” President of basketball operations Brad Stevens said last week, “Look, after that Philly game, you could see it wore on him.”
And this is a guy who talked about being worn out in the Finals last year. Now, everything’s OK and he says he feels good, but it’s February. If this team’s going to win it all, they’re going to be playing deep into June. Are these miles he’s putting on his tires right now going to add up?
The reasons he’s playing this much appears twofold. Primarily, it’s because he wants to, and he’s been very clear about that. I sat down with him about two months ago and he said, “Look, if it’s ever put in my hands, I want to be out there. And there’s been times where they say, ‘Hey, you’re going to sit this game in two weeks.’ Then that day comes and I’ll say, ‘No, [expletive] that. I’m not sitting.’ And I play.”
And that’s worked. And they’ve listened to him.
The other main reason is that the on/off numbers are still pretty startling. As deep as they are, when he’s on the court, they thrive. They’ve outscored opponents by 9.8 points per 100 possessions when he’s on the floor. When he sits, other teams outscore them by 1.8 points per 100 possessions. That’s a massive gap for one player. So he obviously has great value.
He wants to be out there, and they think he feels good. It’s just a matter of: Yes, he feels good now, but will he in June?
2. How important is the No. 1 seed, really?
Adam Himmelsbach: Obviously, anything can happen with injuries, other teams getting hot, cold, etc. But it looks more and more like the chase for the No. 1 seed is going to be a battle between the Bucks and the Celtics. The question is, how important is that to these teams? How much do they want to pursue it, and at what cost?
The Bucks have generally pulled back more than the Celtics. Giannis doesn’t play nearly as much as Tatum does. They sit guys on back-to-backs a little more. Khris Middleton is still on a restriction. They seem less concerned about it.
But then last Tuesday, they played all of their stars huge minutes in an overtime win against Boston’s B team. So, maybe they do care.
The No. 1 seed sounds nice. It’s something you’d like to have. But really what that gets you is, if you happen to play the No. 2 seed in the conference finals, and that series happens to go seven games, you then get one home game on Game 7.
The question is: Is the likelihood of those events happening, and how much it even matters, worth expending the extra energy to get there? So, the Celtics seem to value it. The Bucks seemed to value it a little bit less until Tuesday. But I’ll be curious to see how the two teams approach it as these two months unfold.
3. What lineups will Joe Mazzulla favor as we get closer to the playoffs?
Adam Himmelsbach: The Celtics have dealt with plenty of minor injuries over the past few weeks that pulled bench players into larger roles. And that’s revealed that this team is really, really deep.
Derrick White is thriving. Malcolm Brogdon has been thriving. Grant Williams. These guys are going to give Joe Mazzulla some tough decisions.
Playoff rotations are usually condensed pretty considerably. Top guys start playing 40, 42 minutes. So who’s going to be out there? People assumed Malcolm Brogdon would be in the closing lineup. Is that so certain anymore? How do you leave Derrick White off the floor? Do you go big? Do you go small? How much will matchups matter? But with a team this deep, it’s certainly less cut and dry.
It does position the Celtics to withstand an injury, though. Someone’s probably going to get hurt. Playoffs are long. They’re a grind. Guys are playing big minutes. As long as it’s not Tatum, they’re probably built better than any team to still be fine.
4. How will Jaylen Brown play coming off his injury?
Gary Washburn: Obviously, Brown is coming off a fractured cheekbone — or what I think is a broken jaw — sustained in a collision with Jayson Tatum. How is he going to approach the season wearing a mask? Will that affect his play? Can he continue to be that No. 2 guy, and at times the No. 1 guy in this offense? They need a healthy Tatum, a healthy Brown in order to get that No. 1 seed, in order to get back to the NBA Finals.
He should be well-rested because he will have missed about two weeks-plus when he comes back, so he’ll have some fresh legs. I think that’s good for a team in the final 25 games to have guys with some fresh legs.
So, will he be that No. 2 guy and No. 1 guy at times, with Jayson Tatum, and how much rest Tatum will get down the stretch since Tatum has played so extensively in the first half?
5. The supporting cast has looked good so far this season. Can they keep it up?
Gary Washburn: Marcus Smart is back after missing about a month with an ankle injury. How is he going to perform? Derrick White — can he continue his hot streak? And there’s a couple of important elements here, a couple important players.
Sam Hauser is now in a really good place, really good streak, with his shooting. How will he perform in the second half of the season? Guys like Malcolm Brogdon. Mike Muscala, their new acquisition. Robert Williams, can he stay healthy? Grant Williams has said he has an elbow injury. How will that impact his second half?
So the performances of the “other guys.” How are they going to fare? They have done an admirable job in supporting Jayson Tatum and Jaylen Brown. Will that continue?
Adam Himmelsbach can be reached at email@example.com. Follow him @adamhimmelsbach. Gary Washburn is a Globe columnist. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow him @GwashburnGlobe. Jesse Remedios can be reached at email@example.com. Follow him @JCRemedios.