The Celtics are back from the All-Star break and will open a four-game road trip Friday night against the Timberwolves in Minneapolis. Here are seven story lines to watch as the season nears its stretch run.
1. Jayson Tatum’s ascension: Kemba Walker, a four-time All-Star, was recently asked whether he believes Tatum started playing with a new level of confidence after being named an All-Star for the first time. Walker’s eyes went wide and he nodded, as if to say, well, duh.
The numbers back it up. In the eight games since he was selected as an All-Star reserve, Tatum averaged 27.3 points, 7.1 rebounds, and 3.3 assists, making 48.4 percent of his shots and a blistering 44.8 percent of his 3-point attempts.
The Celtics outscored opponents by 11.9 points per 100 possessions with Tatum on the floor during that time, and that net rating plummets to just 0.4 with Tatum on the bench.
Seasons are filled with peaks and valleys for all players, and perhaps this hot streak is just a coincidence. But if Tatum can sustain something close to this level of production, the Celtics will have an excellent chance to go on a deep postseason run.
2. Kemba Walker’s knee and playing time: Walker missed the Jan. 18 game against the Suns because of a sore left knee. His playing time was limited a bit when he came back, but then he topped the 36-minute mark in three consecutive late January games before missing three more games with knee soreness a few days later.
Coach Brad Stevens said Walker again would be limited when he returned, and the team would avoid playing him heavy minutes the rest of the season. So Walker was on the bench for a good chunk of the fourth quarter in the Feb. 11 loss to the Rockets. He did not love it, but he said he understood.
A few days later, he played 46 minutes in the double-overtime win over the Clippers. Granted, the Celtics never planned for that game to be extended for 10 extra minutes, and it was the last one before the All-Star break, but it was a pretty sudden shift for Stevens after claiming they would avoid situations like that. Walker would have been at 36 minutes even without the extra sessions.
Then he played 29 minutes in the All-Star Game, including an intense and competitive fourth quarter.
It will be worth monitoring how the Celtics balance their chase for seeding with Walker’s health. He missed Wednesday’s practice to rest, and Stevens has shown that sitting out practice is his preferred approach to load management, but Walker will miss Friday’s game against Minnesota, too.
3. The buyout market: Don’t hold your breath on this one, but it remains an option after the trade deadline passed without the Celtics making a move. It’s just a bit complicated. The Celtics do not have an open roster spot, so they would need to cut a player whose contract is guaranteed for the rest of the year. Also, they can offer only a pro-rated minimum-salary deal, and given their depth, they cannot really offer much playing time.
Walker was upset that his close friend Marvin Williams chose to sign with the Bucks after being bought out by the Hornets, but there really haven’t been many intriguing players the Celtics have missed out on. To be eligible for the playoffs, a player must have been waived by March 1.
Some Celtics fans will not want to hear this, but Isaiah Thomas, who was waived by the Clippers, is not an option. Evan Turner, who is expected to have his contract bought out by the Timberwolves, struggled in limited minutes for Atlanta this year. But he could be a good break-glass-in-case-of-emergency possibility for the Celtics if there are multiple injuries during the playoffs, because he has shown he can play well in Stevens’s system.
4. Playoff seeding: Last month, there was still rush-hour-level congestion atop the Eastern Conference standings. But some separation has arrived over the past few weeks, providing a bit more clarity.
The Raptors pushed into second place with their recent 15-game winning streak and hold a 1½-game lead over the third-place Celtics, but the fourth-place Heat are now a full three games back. The difference between second and third place in the East could be massive, however.
The second-place squad will face a team with a losing record in the opening round, while the third-place team almost certainly will end up playing the Pacers or 76ers, or perhaps even the Heat.
Also, the No. 2 team would hold home-court advantage in a second-round series, an important position considering the Celtics and Raptors are a combined 44-12 at home.
5. Robert Williams’s return: Williams has been sidelined since Dec. 6 because of a hip bone edema. The Celtics certainly have not stumbled in his absence, and Daniel Theis and Enes Kanter have teamed up to be a more-than-satisfactory duo. Also, Williams averaged just 3.9 points and 4.6 rebounds in 14.2 minutes before he was hurt, so he should not be expected to have a massive impact.
But his athleticism and above-the-rim style certainly give the Celtics another dimension. And it will be useful to have another option, particularly when Theis or Kanter is in foul trouble, because Vincent Poirier has shown that he cannot yet be trusted in important moments.
Williams took part in practice Wednesday night. While he is not expected to play during this four-game road trip, the team has targeted next Saturday’s home game against the Rockets for his return.
6. Future draft picks: It’s been a crummy year for the value of the Celtics’ best remaining draft asset. The Grizzlies have surged into the No. 8 playoff spot in the powerful Western Conference and they entered Thursday night with a 28-26 record, four games ahead of the ninth-place Blazers.
The Celtics will receive the Memphis pick this season as long as it falls outside the top six. If it rolls over to next season, it will become unprotected. If the Grizzlies miss the playoffs, there would still be an outside chance that they get some lottery luck and vault into the top four. But adding another potential young star to that roster could make them even better next year, so it’s hard to say what would be best for Boston.
The good news for the Celtics is that the Grizzlies have the NBA’s toughest remaining schedule. Their opponents have a combined winning percentage of .554. The Blazers and Pelicans, two teams that could catch Memphis, have the 26th and 30th most difficult schedules. So there will be a chance for slippage. The Celtics also will receive the Bucks’ first-round pick this year, but it’s safe to slot that one at No. 30.
7. Notable remaining games: Sunday at the Lakers, March 12 at Milwaukee, March 20 at the Raptors. But with news that Nets guard Kyrie Irving will undergo shoulder surgery, it’s all but certain that he will end up missing all four of Brooklyn’s games against the Celtics this season (there are two left).