Seven observations on the Celtics while chuckling at the realization that Al Horford made as many 3-pointers against the Knicks last week (six) as he made in the first six seasons of his NBA career. Now that’s how you evolve with the game …
1. Had the Celtics maintained their early-season victory pace — they were 18-4 when November concluded and have gone 28-17 since — they might have found themselves in the ideal late-season situation of being able to prioritize rest while also securing the No. 1 seed without much drama.
But their recent relative struggles, including four losses in six games heading into Saturday’s road matchup with the Hawks, caused them to slip below the scorching Bucks in the Eastern Conference standings. And so now the quest for rest and the top seed has become an either/or situation.
2. Assuming we’re in agreement that the Celtics aren’t going to be able to overcome the Bucks while threading the load-management needle and giving Jayson Tatum, Horford, and any other weary regulars a break when necessary over the final 19 games, a choice is going to have to be made. But at least it’s an easy call: rest must be the priority over seeding.
Home-court advantage for any Game 7s of course would be worth having. But the Celtics proved last year they could win crucial games on the road — most notably Game 6 of the conference semis against the Bucks and Game 7 of the conference finals vs. the Heat.
3. It cannot be forgotten that some Celtics, particularly Tatum, saw their fuel gauge hit empty in the Finals against the Warriors. That was frustrating but understandable.
That playoff gauntlet began April 17 against the Nets (Tatum, around the Kyrie Irving traffic cone, for the layup and the win). It ended a day shy of two months later, on June 16, with the Game 6 loss to Steph Curry and the wise Warriors, who have years and years of expertise at navigating the long postseason.
For the Celtics, it was a grind that they could not have been ready for without experiencing it first.
4. Now, these longtime core Celtics — Tatum, Jaylen Brown, Marcus Smart — have been through the full playoff grind together once, falling only two wins short of the ultimate reward. They must know that their best chance to collect an 18th banner this June is to be as physically ready for their playoff journey as possible.
It has been somewhat alarming that first-year head coach Joe Mazzulla, whose desire to win each game sometimes seems to come at the expense of the big picture, has allowed Tatum to average 37.4 minutes per game, second only to the Raptors’ Pascal Siakam (37.5). A season ago, Tatum averaged 35.9.
5. When Tatum sat Monday against Cleveland after playing 49 minutes the night before against the Knicks, it was a welcome development, so perhaps Mazzulla will ease up on the throttle down the stretch.
He does some unorthodox things as a coach. Data may show that timeouts, which he is notoriously slow to use, don’t have much of an effect on whether an opponent’s run continues or not, but there is a psychological aspect to giving your players a breather and letting them reset that I think he underestimates.
But he’s always learning, and I like that he can admit when he’s wrong.
6. Mazzulla made a mistake in not playing Derrick White in crunch time in that double-overtime Knicks loss, and he admitted it.
I’m curious to see how this goes going forward, because as much as I appreciate Smart, his isolation defense has fallen off to the point that there are suspicions about his health, and there are obvious moments when White, who makes quick decisions and moves the ball, is a better fit on the court.
White is a productive fit in almost any lineup the Celtics deploy, and on a team that doesn’t have a definitive third-best player, he has more often than anyone been that third-best player.
7. I do think we forget sometimes that Mazzulla has Brad Stevens to lean on, and having such an asset in terms of coaching proficiency and deep knowledge of the roster should accelerate the learning curve.
I believe Mazzulla will acquit himself well in the playoffs. But he does need to find some consistency in his rotations; as frustrating as Grant Williams can be, they’re going to need him in the right frame of mind in the playoffs.
And I hope Mazzulla has the gravitas to be blunt with his players — something Ime Udoka did very well — when they’re not playing the right way.