After the Celtics completed practice at the Auerbach Center Wednesday, a group of assistant coaches and end-of-bench reserves started up a full scrimmage along with one tall, notable exception.
With a black sleeve protecting the left calf that forced him to miss the last four games, center Kristaps Porzingis looked comfortable and confident as he ran up and down the court. There was no hesitation as he lined up 3-pointers and slid through the lane for dunks, and all indications are that he will return for Friday night’s game against the Knicks at TD Garden.
“I think, after what I did today, I should be good to go,” Porzingis said.
The Celtics won their first three games without Porzingis before dropping perhaps the most meaningful one, Monday’s In-Season Tournament quarterfinal against the Pacers.
Porzingis said that if it had been his call, he never would have sat out after suffering the injury during the Nov. 24 loss to the Magic. But he trusts the team’s medical staff. Even if he was not thrilled about its decision, he believes in the bigger picture.
“Of course, everybody was a little bit upset and mad at ourselves for not getting it done [against the Pacers],” Porzingis said. “But me especially, not being able to help out there, it hurts, especially knowing the vision that we had. But this is how it goes and that’s it. As I said, we’ll be back.”
The Celtics (15-5) sit atop the Eastern Conference with one quarter of the season complete. But Porzingis said that watching from a different vantage point over the last few games reinforced the belief that there is still plenty of room to grow.
“I think consistency throughout the game,” he said. “I think we are getting better at that. Of course, like any team, there are some slip-ups. This is not just us; it’s always like that. But you always strive for perfection . . . I believe we have a lot of room to grow because of the talent that we have. We’re already playing good basketball, but we believe we can still achieve many levels.”
Porzingis said the Celtics need to do a better job quickly seeking and attacking mismatches against opponents, a suggestion that coach Joe Mazzulla agreed with when it was relayed to him.
“And some of that is when he’s playing and teams are switching, the mismatch is the small being on him,” Mazzulla said. “So we have to really do that. Obviously, we go back to playing five or six games without him, those matchups are going to be different. We missed a couple of those. But we have to do a better job of forcing those mismatches and not just thinking that the other team is going to give them to us. So we may be running the right action, we just don’t run it with the physicality and the screening advantage that we need to force the matchup that we want.”
Mazzulla said that the Celtics’ weaknesses will probably shift every 5-10 games over the course of this long, winding season, and that they’ll need to be prepared to adjust based on their needs.
At the moment, he said, they are focused on setting more physical screens to help create those mismatches that Porzingis addressed, reducing and forcing turnovers, and highlighting a few defensive principles. But he is encouraged that his team remains so growth-focused despite its perch atop the standings.
“When you have the talent that we have, you have the record that we have, it’s easy to just sit there and relax and just be on auto pilot,” Mazzulla said. “I think you have to find that healthy balance of, like, ‘We’re OK, but we have to get better.’ And it could be something different every five games; it doesn’t matter. What matters is that we keep the open-mindedness that just because we’re good doesn’t mean we can’t get better. We’ve got to be really hard on ourselves on what the standard is and what it looks like to grow.”