WALTHAM – The return is near.
The Celtics are down three crucial players with Kelly Olynyk inching toward his season debut, Al Horford making his way out of the NBA concussion protocol and Jae Crowder recovering from an ankle sprain.
But first up could be Kelly Olynyk, who will be questionable for Sunday’s matchup against the Denver Nuggets. Coach Brad Stevens disseminated the news with a pessimistic tone, but says Athletic Trainer Eddie Lacerte will make the final call Sunday.
“He’s going to be listed as questionable, but that’s going to be completely his and Eddie’s call,” Stevens said. “But he’s getting a lot better. Like I said, he’s right around the corner here.”
Olynyk was sent down to the Maine Red Claws to get a practice in alongside rookie Demetrius Jackson Friday. It was more a chance to get him extra reps than anything.
“They practiced here. He felt fine,” Stevens said. “So he practiced today and he’s just going to be now on this – I’d say he’s closer than further, so we’ll see.”
Also turning the corner is Al Horford, who Stevens said would be out Sunday night.
“Al’s getting better,” Stevens said. “He did a little bit of activity, as you probably saw above. He’s going to be out on the court a little bit today, but he’ll be out tomorrow. If everything goes well today then we’ll up his activity tomorrow but he will not be cleared to play by game time, is what I’ve been told.”
For Horford, the severity of the injury and the timetable are out the window, as far as Stevens is concerned.
“This was the first day that he started the progression without any symptoms. To me a concussion is a concussion, so I don’t know the difference.”
The same cannot be said for Jae Crowder, who is still a few games away from his return. Stevens projected a two-week absence in Cleveland Thursday for his Bae, who is still not practicing.
“He was getting treatment all day; doing a lot better,” Stevens said. “The swelling is down, progressing at a really good rate. He won’t be ready in the next couple of days by any means, but I think ultimately as we get into the next week he’ll have a good chance of returning.”
ALL OFFENSE, NO DEFENSE
After all the hype and buildup for these new Horford Celtics, the results are only showing up on one side of the ball.
Through the first five games, the Celtics find themselves second in the NBA in offensive rating (111.4 points per 100 possessions) and second to last in defensive rating at 109.1. Their games have been high-energy transition marathons, with the Celtics narrowly winning a few tit for tat sprints.
Often, the biggest challenge for a defense adding new players is to learn side-to-side help rotations and dealing with switches. There has been a lot of matchup confusion, especially in transition, which is not a surprise considering the Celtics have added a rookie and a new center to the team’s main rotation. But on a team that was looking to establish itself as the league’s best defense, nobody is satisfied.
“I’m not as worried about the numbers as I am just watching it,” Stevens said. “We go through after every game and we have a chance to practice like today then you focus on those things and you try to work on them and improve them. I’m trying to make sure that we’re as focused technically as we can be on what we can improve, with the understanding that we haven’t all been out there and we’re not all going to be out there together.”
The surprise has been that last year’s stalwarts like Jae Crowder, Marcus Smart and Avery Bradley have had some trouble communicating consistently. Communication takes everyone’s attention and awareness to actually work, but even the best defenders can lag behind the play. While the small sample size may skew the numbers to look more bleak than reality, there are temporary weak spots in the defensive system that weren’t apparent last year.
“I think the guys that are back have improved in a lot of areas, but we’ve slipped in some defensive areas that we need to get back to being better at,” Stevens said. “Being in the right position solves a lot of errors. Right now we’re not turning anybody over because we’re not in the right spot a lot.”
“We’ve had our good games -- I thought Charlotte we defended well. I thought, for the most part, against the Bulls we defended well. But you know this part of the sample size of -- we were awful against Brooklyn, we were awful against Cleveland, defensively, and that’s two of your five games. So you’re going to be ranked pretty low.”
Playing Cleveland on the second night of a back-to-back without Horford and Crowder may have had a bit of an impact on that small-sample-size defensive rating. But there was no question that the offense, which was catalyzed by a sudden emergence of Jaylen Brown, is firing on all cylinders regardless of who is out. Even Isaiah Thomas is surprised at how well things are clicking.
"[Surprised] A little bit, but at the same time, everybody's improved this summer, whether it be on their shooting, whether it be on their ability to make plays for others. And I think that's what's helped,” Thomas said. “They're not just all looking at me to make a play.
“Avery can come down and bring the ball up and make a play for himself or for others, and other players on this team can do well, especially guys like Terry Rozier and things like that. So I think guys just improved and guys are unselfish. We've got a really unselfish group of guys. That makes offense that much easier."
An important task is getting the aforementioned players, as well as Smart, Brown and Gerald Green, accustomed to their minutes schedule and responsibilities on offense. Rozier has taken on a large role in the second unit, a stark contrast from the occasional run last season that had him mostly standing on the elbow to swing the ball to a scorer. More stability throughout the roster will allow Thomas and Bradley to focus on balancing their attack.
“It sucks that Jae went down and then Al had his concussion stuff, so it slowed things down a bit,” Thomas said. “But for the most part, I mean guys are kind of learning their roles. I’m trying to pick and choose when I can be in attack mode to score and when I get my teammate involved. But, I mean, it’s coming along. We still got a long way to go and a lot of things to get better at, but I mean, individually I feel like I’m almost where I want to be.”
It’s working for Thomas pretty well, as the Celtics are second in the league in points per possession for pick-and-roll ball handlers at 1.08, per NBA stats. While the improvement has a lot to do with how Al Horford moves the defense’s center of gravity, a lot of the results are in the basics.
"The bigs are really setting the picks, and I think we're rolling,” Thomas said. “Last year we got caught being in the wrong position after you set the pick. Bigs didn’t know if they were rolling or popping. We've got a lot of bigs that know that they’re rolling every time, and then guys like Al, he can pick and choose what he wants to do and read the defense. But it comes back to just the guards being able to make plays. I mean, guys, like I said, have gotten better, and the guys can make more plays, and not just for themselves but for others."
When CelticsBlog asked Thomas if Horford has free reign to decide when to roll or pop, the little guy let out a little laugh.
"He makes $113 million! He can do what he wants, I think. But he has a high basketball IQ, so he knows when to pop, he knows when to roll."
With Horford’s return around the corner, it’s almost time again to let the good times roll.