When Jae Crowder was walking gingerly on his own in the Celtics locker room, favoring a sprained right ankle but moving without a boot or crutches, the assumption was that the team’s toughest player, who has shaken off numerous leg tweaks over the past two seasons, would keep on trucking and miss no time.
Then came Sunday, when Crowder’s teammates found out that their spiritual leader, the dude who relishes the “bad guy” role on the road, will miss at least two weeks with a high ankle sprain. Not only do the Celtics now have to move forward without their best defender of small forwards — and Indiana’s Paul George is the Celtics next opponent Tuesday — they also will be without a big-shot maker and improving 3-point shooter.
So they will have to change, become a different team in the final month of the regular season, starting Tuesday against the Pacers. The Celtics’ hold on the third seed is nowhere near secure.
Entering Monday, the Celtics were just four games ahead of seventh-seeded Indiana, with the Miami Heat, Charlotte Hornets, and Atlanta Hawks all within 1½ games of Boston. So there is little margin for error.
Whoever replaces Crowder in the starting lineup — probably the versatile Evan Turner — will have to emerge as a capable defender and scorer.
Turner is having one of his better NBA seasons and is a Sixth Man of the Year candidate. Placing him in the starting lineup is probably coach Brad Stevens’s only option. The good news is that Turner does have 233 career NBA starts, including 57 last season.
Turner will be the best Evan Turner. He generally doesn’t try to do anything outside of his comfort zone, and that’s a good thing. The Celtics may welcome back Kelly Olynyk, who has missed the past 11 games with a sprained right shoulder.
That adds versatility to a Celtics’ offense that has been stagnant in stretches of late. Olynyk, enjoying the best 3-point shooting year of his career at 41.3 percent, will stretch the floor and give Jared Sullinger and the other Celtics’ bigs room to work.
“They’re going to need somebody,” Olynyk said. “They’re going to need a body. Jae’s a big void to fill. He’s been playing great for us the whole year at both ends of the floor, scoring, rebounding, defending. He’s a tough person to fill by a single person, so we’re going to need a lot of guys to step up in his absence.”
An impending issue for Stevens is the status of veteran Amir Johnson, who in five games in March is shooting 38.9 percent and pulling down just 2.6 rebounds, 3.6 below his season average. After scoring in double figures in six consecutive games in January, he has done so once in the past 26 games. And after playing 25.1 minutes per game in January, Johnson has played just 15 this month.
Stevens has opted for Tyler Zeller at the center position more often, and perhaps he may increase Zeller’s time even more now that it appears Johnson may be tiring.
“We look at that after every game,” Stevens said. “Obviously, when you’re winning more often than not, there’s not a lot of change that usually occurs. Although I think you certainly have to look at it. We’ll look at it, and we’ll see.”
The Celtics recalled Jordan Mickey and James Young from NBADL Maine for depth. While Stevens said that Mickey is more of a power forward, Young is a small forward who has waited two years to contribute. He has spent most of this season in Maine, and while his scoring numbers are down, the team wanted him to concentrate more on being a distributor.
This may be Young’s time to become a contributor off the bench. He’s just 20 years old, the youngest player on the team, but there has been a level of impatience from Celtics faithful since he was a first-round pick and has yet to make any consistent impact.
Young said that he has learned a great deal since being drafted, and that the Maine experience has been invaluable.
“I have been focusing a lot more on playing an all-around game, not just scoring,” he said. “I’ve been doing a lot of rebounding and defending. Going back to Maine has been helping me. The competition is great, and I’ve been trying to work on everything.”
When asked on being an asset to the Celtics during Crowder’s absence, Young said: “It’s an opportunity for me if it comes. Whatever the coach wants, I’ll just go out there and help the team out and win. If it’s scoring, it’s scoring. If it’s playing defense, it’s playing defense.”
It may be time for the Celtics to give Young some minutes to see how he responds. His improvement has been seen mostly in practice, and he appears ready to show his skills. The process has been painstaking.
“I definitely can [see the improvement],” he said. “Earlier in the season, I thought I was there. But I saw I had a lot of stuff to learn still. I’m still learning, but it’s been slowly. Every day, I’m just getting better and better. I’m putting on more effort, and I’m playing harder.”
The Celtics will have to rely on their depth during Crowder’s absence, and it appears with Mickey and Young, they will also have to rely on their youth. That may be the best remedy.
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