The sense of urgency for Danny Ainge should have begun two minutes into Wednesday’s rather drab loss to the 8-24 Phoenix Suns.
That’s when Aron Baynes split his left hand between the middle and ring fingers on the wrist of Suns rookie Deandre Ayton and broke his fourth metacarpal. He’s out at least a month and hand fractures are delicate injuries considering how easily they can be reinjured.
So without the capable and valuable Baynes, with Al Horford still out with knee soreness and Guerschon Yabusele out with a sprained ankle, the Celtics are down to two healthy big men. So it’s time to make a move.
The Celtics have a full 15-man roster if you include Jabari Bird, who has missed the entire season after a domestic violence arrest and it is uncertain if he will play for the club again. And the Celtics may need that roster spot because depth in the front court is becoming an issue.
Without Baynes, the Celtics had no answer for Ayton, who finished with 23 points and a career-high tying 18 rebounds, eight of those offensive. What’s more, the Celtics yielded 21 offensive rebounds and lost despite holding Phoenix to less than 43 percent shooting.
It was a bewildering loss because the Suns weren’t particularly impressive offensively but yet led most of the second half. The Celtics, on the other hand, made four (four!) 2-point baskets in the second half. The lone inside presence was Robert Williams, who at this point is only comfortable enough to block shots and rebound.
Daniel Theis should have been relied upon to play more minutes but he collected just three rebounds in 21 minutes and didn’t score in the second half. So Brad Stevens was left to use Williams, who is an emerging, improving prospect but perhaps not completely prepared for major minutes.
Baynes gives the Celtics rebounds, toughness, an ability to score around the basket and even to stretch the floor as 3-point shooter. He is a valuable asset.
With the Celtics’ schedule becoming a flurry of games every other night — 27 games in the next 54 days — they shouldn’t just cross their fingers for good health from Horford. He worked out prior to Wednesday’s game and is making progress, but is uncertain for Friday against Milwaukee. The Celtics’ level of competition also increases and this team can’t just rely on talent to win games. They are too maddeningly inconsistent.
The Celtics attributed Saturday’s loss in Detroit to playing a more desperate team seeking to snap a six-game losing streak. Wednesday was different. The Celtics jumped out to an 11-2 lead, led by 11 after the first period and then proceeded to shoot 34 percent the rest of the way. They made 17 field goals in the opening period and 21 combined in the final three.
So the Celtics were relegated to firing up threes, Kyrie Irving trying to attack the rim (to moderate success) or hurried ball movement that resulted in turnovers. The Celtics have to find ways to win games such as these, but they could do nothing with Ayton, the No. 1 pick who is averaging a double-double but generating zero buzz for rookie of the year.
Yet, he looked like a first-team All-NBA selection Wednesday despite resistance from Williams. It’s not that Baynes has an ankle sprain or muscle pull, he broke his hand so to expect a rapid return would be unreasonable. That’s why the Celtics need relief.
There are NBA experienced bigs on the market, such as former Celtics Tyler Zeller, Brandan Wright or Quincy Acy, and of course, the wild card could be former Celtic Kendrick Perkins, who was told by Ainge that the team was good on big man depth. That is no longer the case.
The most rational idea for the Celtics is to wait until Jan. 5, the first day players are eligible for 10-day contracts, so the risk is less. But Ainge needs to seriously consider a move because even with Horford back, the combination of Theis and Williams can’t compensate for Baynes.
Meanwhile, the Celtics need to be better prepared for the onslaught because they should have found a way to win Wednesday. The Suns were 7-24 entering the game and despite a three-game winning streak, had one of the league’s worst records. Regardless of the absence of Marcus Morris (knee), Horford, and Baynes, the Celtics have to be tougher in these moments when they are challenged and shots aren’t going down.
Irving questioned the team’s focus, again. The Celtics appeared uninterested after the first period, thinking the Suns would fade after an 11-point first-quarter deficit.
“We just to have consistency amongst all our units, whoever is in,” Irving said. “Just a cohesion where the ball’s moving, guys actually want to see other players be in the position to score the basketball, so that means delivering on time, actually trying certain possessions. When we try, were in the game all the time and when we don’t we’re clearly not.”
Irving is right, the focus isn’t always completely there and with competing teams in the Eastern Conference making moves, it may be time for Ainge to stop resting on his laurels and add to the roster.