TORONTO — While the Raptors are reinvigorated for the second half of the season with the additions of Serge Ibaka and P.J. Tucker, who was on the Celtics’ radar, Boston will enter Friday’s showdown with its Canadian rival with the same team it had on Wednesday.
President of basketball operations Danny Ainge appeared a bit sullen after failing to make a move before Thursday’s trade deadline, but he denied being melancholy. What’s more, he said refraining from pulling off a trade was evidence of his confidence in this roster, one that has played all but three games in the new year without its best defender and leading rebounder.
It would be too much of a cliché to describe the return of Avery Bradley from a sore right Achilles’ tendon like adding a key player through trade, but the Celtics are going to have to hope he has that kind of impact if they want to claim the No. 2 seed in the Eastern Conference, or even the top seed.
Washington added sharpshooter Bojan Bogdanovic, Atlanta traded for swingman Ersan Ilyasova, and Toronto picked up two physical forwards. The Celtics have prided themselves on depth, but it’s not as if they didn’t have pressing needs.
But, honestly, filling those needs is likely going to take a summer of work. Boston needs a rim protector and only one — Nerlens Noel, a restricted free agent due a large raise — changed teams at the deadline, going from Philadelphia to Dallas. The Celtics could have used another sharpshooter off the bench, but did they really need one?
Boston’s offense has been splendid the past few months and players such as Gerald Green and James Young have responded after being given more playing time. Rookie Jaylen Brown, whom the Celtics were reluctant to include in any deal, also has improved.
Ainge essentially bet on himself and this roster to make that one major stride needed down the stretch. The Celtics were interested in acquiring Paul George, but the Pacers were not going to trade him, at least not now. So should Ainge have just made a deal to appease the fan base? Bring in a newcomer who might not have been any better than what they already have?
He’s done it before. Jeff Green never met expectations. Jordan Crawford had his moments but was nothing special. Tayshaun Prince was more of a leader than a player. Celtics fans are going to have to trust Danny on this one, and it’s not that he hasn’t made mistakes before, but this trade deadline didn’t offer a player dying to be snapped up, such as Isaiah Thomas two years ago.
“Like we’ve said all year, we won’t put a ceiling on this team,” Ainge said late Thursday afternoon. “We haven’t seen the best of this team, but I think we’re better. Our whole team hasn’t been intact for very many games. Our [planned] starting five, less than 20. And as you guys have been watching lately, we have been winning a lot of games with everybody contributing. Players 10 through 15 are contributing to our wins. So I like the depth of our team. I like the youth of the team. I like the energy and enthusiasm of our team and I’m very anxious and excited to watch them for the rest of the year.”
Ainge is right about the starting lineup. Bradley has missed 21 games. Al Horford has missed 12. Thomas has missed four. Jae Crowder has missed 10. The success of the Celtics depends on Bradley’s impact and whether Marcus Smart can continue his stellar play.
What the injuries have allowed is for those little-used reserves such as Young and Green, both of whom were thought to be roster casualties if a trade was made, to gain confidence. In other words, the Celtics played so well in January and February — going 24-8 since losing to San Antonio in mid-December — that Ainge didn’t feel pressured to make a deal.
This is not an NBA Finals team as currently constructed, but with continued ascension and the return of Bradley, the Celtics are capable of pushing the Cavaliers in the East.
“We like what we have, we like our position,” Ainge said. “We like our future a lot. We’re very excited about where we are on a long-term basis. We’re happy with our direction.”
What Celtics fans should be excited about is the potential of that 2017 Brooklyn pick potentially being the No. 1 overall selection. Once again, the May 16 draft lottery will carry plenty of intrigue for the Celtics as well as some downtrodden, rebuilding teams. The difference is the Celtics may be in the Eastern Conference semifinals at the same time.
It’s an enviable position. Ainge didn’t sacrifice the future for the present, or maybe he didn’t have an opportunity to, but the Celtics weren’t losers at this trade deadline because they didn’t lose anything. They still have Thomas scoring fourth-quarter buckets, tough guys Crowder and Smart, the soaring athleticism and increasing confidence of Brown, a flourishing Kelly Olynyk, and perhaps the return of Bradley and his 18 points and seven rebounds per game.
So, there is reason for hope. Ainge appears all-in on this roster, which should serve as a momentum boost beginning Friday, when the Celtics begin a stretch of games against the Raptors, Pistons, Hawks, and Cavaliers. The time is now for the Celtics, and we’ll see if Ainge was right to stand pat. He’s never been afraid of making the unpopular move, and while this may leave Celtics fans with an unsavory feeling for a few weeks, it was the right move.
“I’m not disappointed at all,” Ainge said. “I’m not mellow, maybe my voice is mellow. I’m excited actually. I was watching practice today and I was very excited about what I saw. I’m not disappointed. I’m very optimistic and excited about the rest of the year.”