Perhaps there was a reason Brad Stevens gave his team the entire coming weekend off. He knows how difficult the next two games will be as the Celtics face two of their Eastern Conference peers in a back-to-back set.
First is Wednesday’s game against Indiana at Bankers Life Fieldhouse, against a Pacers team off to a solid start without All-Star guard Victor Oladipo, who remains out recovering from knee surgery. Then Philadelphia comes to TD Garden on Thursday night. After the 76ers game, the Celtics are off for five days.
The Pacers added Malcolm Brogdon from the Milwaukee Bucks and acquired T.J. Warren from the Phoenix Suns, and they are the team’s two leading scorers. The team the Celtics swept in the first round of the playoffs last season is mostly gone.
Darren Collison, Wesley Matthews, Bojan Bogdanovic, Tyreke Evans, Thaddeus Young, and Cory Joseph have all departed. Indiana reshaped its roster with Brogdon, the former Rookie of the Year, as the centerpiece and point guard, while Warren is finally flourishing after years of improving in anonymity in Phoenix.
The Celtics have won six of their last seven games, including an impressive victory over the Miami Heat last week. Boston’s four losses since the season-opening defeat to the 76ers have been by a combined 13 points. But Stevens said last week his team wasn’t playing as well as it had been, but a blowout win against Denver last week followed by Gordon Hayward’s return from injury Monday in a rout of Cleveland was encouraging.
“Yup, we’ll talk about Philly when that time comes, but Indiana is playing awfully well. The double bigs are hard and [Myles] Turner is a bonus. I thought they did a great job in their offseason of adding guys that were really undervalued,” Stevens said after Monday’s win. “When you look at [Jeremy] Lamb and Warren and [T.J.] McConnell and [Aaron] Holiday, those guys are all good players and they impact winning and they’ve added to their team quite a bit. They’ve got a ton of new guys, people always talk about how teams change. They play the same way, they play hard, seemingly well-coached; that’s going to be a difficult one.”
It’s a good test for the Celtics, who will play Indiana, Philadelphia, Dallas, and Toronto twice over the next three weeks as a litmus test. The Celtics have played the past few weeks at less than full strength, with Hayward missing 13 games, but that won’t be the case over this stretch.
“I don’t think we have to make any adjustments, really,” said forward Jayson Tatum of bringing back Hayward. “He’s an easy guy to play with. Waiting until he was all the way healthy, that’s the biggest thing.”
When asked about the back-to-back this week, Tatum said: “It’s going to be fun. Two really good teams, tough, potential playoff opponents. So, it’s going to be fun.”
This is exactly what the Celtics need right now. They need to be challenged. They need to know where they stand among their brethren. They realistically have a chance to win the East this season, and have the third-best record in the NBA.
And that’s with Hayward missing time, Enes Kanter struggling with an early knee injury, and Marcus Smart being beset with myriad ailments. Smart is listed as questionable for Wednesday with a left eye infection, while Robert Williams will be out with hip soreness.
But this is as healthy as the Celtics have been in weeks, and it’s occurring at the most opportune time. Boston’s strong start has not only served to make it one of the league’s surprises, but it’s given the club some early equity. One of the main reasons the Celtics were able to earn the No. 1 seed in the East two years ago was their 16-2 start.
This time they’re 17-5 and three games behind the first-place Bucks. This stretch, as difficult it may be short term, will allow the Celtics to truly judge themselves and assess whether they need reinforcements before the Feb. 6 trade deadline.
Dec. 15 is the first day that many recently signed free agents can be traded, and the market is expected to open up as contenders and pretenders emerge.
The Celtics are contenders and are looking forward to playing other contenders, and it should be an educational stretch for the team.
“Two big games. Two tough opponents,” Jaylen Brown said. “Physical teams. Definitely raise up our physicality. This will be a good test for us.”
Gary Washburn can be reached at email@example.com.