The Celtics need another body, another productive player, someone to come in and help this team as it struggles at the worst possible time of the season.
Sunday’s 131-129 double-overtime loss displayed so many examples of the team’s weaknesses, especially on defense, when the Celtics were picked apart by Knicks reserve Immanuel Quickley, who scored a career-high 38 points.
Coach Joe Mazzulla revealed Sunday that center Robert Williams will miss seven to 10 days with a strained left hamstring, and considering his injury history, it could be considerably longer. Williams’s absence robs the Celtics of their best defensive frontcourt player and president of basketball operations Brad Stevens will have to pivot and supplement the roster with a replacement.
With 17 games left, rushing Williams back would be foolish. It may even be the most prudent move to shut him down for the regular season. He hasn’t proven capable of staying healthy and hamstrings are tricky.
Without Williams against the Knicks, the Celtics missed any interior defensive presence, and Mazzulla was relegated to using Grant Williams for key stretches. The Knicks picked on Williams with pick-and-rolls so he would defend Quickley one-on-one. Quickley feasted.
Even in double overtime and with Robert Williams and Malcolm Brogdon out, Mazzulla did not dig deep into his bench. He used eight players, including Jayson Tatum nearly 49 minutes and Jaylen Brown nearly 48. And there is another critical game Monday against the Cleveland Cavaliers.
Without the 7-foot Williams, Luke Kornet still did not play, meaning Mazzulla didn’t see a use for him with matchups or he doesn’t entirely trust Kornet in a key role. Blake Griffin also didn’t play, as well as Payton Pritchard.
With an open roster spot and a plethora of veterans available for 10-day or rest-of-the-season contracts, it’s time for Stevens to sign somebody. The names on the market are familiar, depending on what Stevens believes the Celtics need.
The players available include LaMarcus Aldridge, Dwight Howard, DeMarcus Cousins, Derrick Favors, Hassan Whiteside, Moses Brown, Tristan Thompson, and Serge Ibaka. Some of those names are intriguing, some aren’t. But the Celtics need a healthy body to eat up some minutes and give Mazzulla more options.
Privately, the organization believes it can manage with the big men they have currently, increasing playing time for Grant Williams, Mike Muscala, Kornet, and Griffin. But if Mazzulla didn’t play the latter two in a 58-minute game, it’s an indication he doesn’t feel comfortable expanding their roles in normal regulation games.
The Celtics looked tired in the overtime. Tatum ran back and forth to the locker room between timeouts and the end of quarters. Mazzulla said he had to use the restroom. It was probably something different.
Boston blew a 14-point third-quarter lead because again it finished the third quarter poorly and then used a lineup with Muscala and Sam Hauser to begin the fourth. Not surprisingly, that bizarre lineup didn’t fare well as the Knicks went on a 10-2 run to begin the fourth, and the Celtics had lost full grasp of the game.
And if Hauser and Muscala aren’t hitting shots (they were a combined 2 for 7 shooting and a combined minus-25), there’s almost no reason to play them. But Mazzulla at least doesn’t feel as if he has many other options.
“You can pick 10 plays that if they went our way or if we would have gotten a stop here,” Mazzulla said. “That’s how close the margins are.”
They rallied furiously in the final minutes to force overtime, with Jaylen Brown completing a 3-point play to tie the score in the final seconds of regulation. The Celtics were 4-for-14 shooting and 2 of 10 on 3-pointers in overtime. Fatigue was an issue. A lot of makeable shots were missed and with Marcus Smart fouling out, the options were even more scarce.
Stevens is concerned about any newcomer altering team culture, complaining about a lack of minutes, and potentially being a negative influence. But with the Bucks, 76ers, and other contenders making moves, Stevens can’t just stand pat and rely on a roster that is eventually going to need rest, especially Tatum and Brown.
It will be interesting to see who is available for the Celtics Monday in Cleveland. It’s another important game. The Cavaliers are well-rested and will be looking for revenge.
“I have zero concerns,” Mazzulla said of the recent skid of three losses in four games. “Just because there’s 17 games left doesn’t mean that there’s any difference than how a (normal) stretch of the season would go. You obviously want to be playing your best basketball later in the season as you get closer to the playoffs, but this is a tough stretch. And whatever this stretch has you have to learn from it and use it later in the year.”
Seven of the Celtics’ next eight games are on the road, and seven of those games are against teams competing for a playoff berth or playoff seeding. And Stevens is holding on to that open roster spot as if Victor Wembanyama is somehow going to become available. It’s time for Stevens to use it wisely, give the roster a boost and Mazzulla one more option.
“We haven’t played well,” Tatum said. “Overall we’ve still had a great year. We’ve hit a little rough patch right now, which is fine. We would like to win every game coming out of the (All-Star) break but that wasn’t going to happen. We’re still in a great position and we’ve still got time to figure it out and we’re going to. We know what we’re capable of.”
Gary Washburn is a Globe columnist. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow him on Twitter @GwashburnGlobe.