The Celtics will be waiting a little bit longer to get completely healthy this season.
Just when it appeared they could get a full squad — minus second-year center Robert Williams — the Celtics will not have Enes Kanter for Friday’s game against the Orlando Magic because he has a bruised hip.
Jaylen Brown (ankle) and Jayson Tatum (groin) join Kanter on the injured list as questionable in what has become a critical and intriguing road trip.
If you recall, the Magic beat the Celtics all three meetings last year and they have inched up to seventh in the Eastern Conference, meaning this could be a playoff preview for the Celtics. Orlando has given them issues in the past and the Celtics will need to be as close to whole as possible to compete.
The Celtics then hit New Orleans, which if you haven’t been following sports over the past few days, features one Zion Williamson, the highly touted rookie who scored 22 points in 18 minutes in his NBA debut that was delayed three months by injury. He will be playing his third game against the Celtics and, of course, it’s nationally televised by ESPN.
The road trip ends Tuesday in Miami, where the Heat are the best home team in the NBA with a 20-1 record. They are one of the Celtics’ primary competitors for the No. 2 seed and a win would at least guarantee the Celtics a split of the season series (the two teams play twice in April).
There are nothing but good vibes as the Celtics descend on this trip, and that sentiment came swiftly and surprisingly. Just six days ago, the Celtics lost at home to the Phoenix Suns (who haven’t won since) and hardly seemed prepared to face the Los Angeles Lakers.
But a win against the Lakers, perhaps one of coach Brad Stevens’s biggest regular-season victories, followed by a trouncing of the surging Memphis Grizzlies has the Celtics back to those happy feelings about their long-term chances.
“I don’t really judge the consistency based solely on wins and losses, right?” Stevens said. “I think you judge it based on how you’re playing, you judge it based on how you’re defending, are we pressuring the way we want? Are we making shots is not as big of a deal as what kind of shots are we getting? And we’ve got, you know, a tough road trip coming up, but I think – I’m looking forward to the challenges because we’re going to really have to physically meet challenges to be successful, and that starts with a good Orlando team on Friday night.”
The Celtics are pressuring the ball more and becoming more menacing on defense. They have one of the more versatile and physical teams in the NBA. Opposing coaches constantly laud the Celtics on their physicality and their ability to control the game defensively also by not fouling.
Causing turnovers allows the Celtics to play more in transition and get easier baskets. The common denominator the past two games has been the defense and the ability to switch. Having multiple players with the skill of guarding offensive players is what makes the Celtics a special team.
During their losing streak, the Celtics lost that identity. Of course, having Brown and Kemba Walker, who was named an All-Star starter Thursday night, out for periods didn’t help. But the Celtics are a defensive team first whose defense makes their offense easier.
“Obviously, there’s a lot of things we can clean up,” said guard Marcus Smart. “Each game we try to get better as a team, but these last couple games for us, we’ve really been focusing on ourselves and our defensive game and we’ve been doing a good job. I’m proud of these guys. Every night we try and come down and give the best effort that we can, and that’s all we can ask for.”
Now comes the task of bringing that consistency on the road, putting their struggles behind them because every game is critical in the second half. There are five teams vying for the No. 2 seed — assuming the Milwaukee Bucks hold on to their 7 ½-game lead — and they are separated by three games.
So the Celtics can no longer give away games to subpar teams as they did against the Phoenix Suns or Detroit Pistons. Nothing can be taken for granted. And this road trip will give the Celtics an opportunity to gain more confidence and momentum as the season progresses.
The Celtics hope their inconsistent and lackadaisical days were nothing but a phase affected by injuries. They have played just 16 games with their preferred starting five but they may have to get accustomed to getting banged up. They have enough depth to compensate for this losses — if they play the right way as they have the past two games.