It’s been a long time since we’ve had NBA basketball in our lives. That will change soon. Scrimmages in the league’s Disney World bubble start on July 22nd, and seeding games kick off on July 30th. The world we inhabit presently looks quite a bit different from that which we occupied when the NBA shut down in mid-March, but the on-court intrigue that was most prevalent then isn’t likely to have shifted much.
We’ve outlined five of the most pertinent Boston Celtics storylines from prior to the shutdown to help you get ready for the resumption of play. Let’s dig in.
Is Jayson Tatum a superstar?
In nine games after the All-Star break, Jayson Tatum averaged 29.9 points, 7.9 rebounds, 3.1 assists, 1.6 steals, and 1 block per game, all while posting a 60.2% true shooting percentage, per Basketball Reference. Those are MVP-caliber numbers, the likes of which Boston’s precocious young wing has only shown very brief flashes of being able to compile through his early career.
Nine games is a tiny sample, and Tatum’s robust statistical output is more likely to be the result of a hot streak than an ascension to top-5 player status. He made a truly ridiculous 46.8% of his three-point shots after the All-Star break, a rate that is unlikely to hold over time. At least some component of Tatum’s improvement is potentially attributable to personal development though.
Prior to the shutdown, he had assumed the role of the Celtics most potent offensive weapon. He’s a lethal shooter all over the court, a burgeoning pick-and-roll threat in truly terrifying ways, and a handful in isolation, as likely to embarrass you with an absurdist side-step three as he is to glide past you for scoops, extension layups, and even the occasional hammer.
He was a menace on the defensive end of the court as well. Tatum has uncanny timing as a help defender. He feigns at driving opponents, only to slip back towards the perimeter where he uses his length to pick off kick outs. For much of the season, Tatum drew his value from being able to impact both ends of the court in meaningful ways. After the All-Star break, his effectiveness as an offensive engine was so significant that his defense - while still excellent - became icing on the cake.
That may seem a silly distinction, but it matters for Boston, a team whose greatest flaw has been a lack of a superstar level talent - someone who can create efficient shots at will, with the intelligence and athleticism to impact the game every moment they’re on the court, and the confidence to rise to the challenge in the game’s biggest moments.
That’s the kind of player Tatum was as the NBA entered its hiatus. If he plays at a similar level as the league resumes, no one will want to face the Celtics.
The state of Kemba Walker’s knee
Kemba Walker has essentially had the inverse of Tatum’s season. Where the latter has improved over time, the former started off red hot, only to see his performance crater over the course of the year. Boston’s jitterbug point guard played in just 20 of a possible 31 games from January through March, dealing with a balky knee.
When he did play, Walker’s performance was uninspiring. His shooting suffered in particular. Walker managed just 54.6% true shooting, including 43.9% shooting on looks within five feet of the basket, a far cry from the player who was arguably Boston’s best for the first several months of the season.
Walker lacked burst attacking the hoop and lift launching from distance. He claims the layoff has been good for his health and that his knee is fine, but the Celtics have been fairly cautious with his ramp up to date. Even if Jayson Tatum has taken a developmental leap, whether or not Walker is able to play at his peak performance level will heavily dictate just how deep of a postseason run Boston can make.
The Memphis Grizzlies playoff push
While the fortunes of the Memphis Grizzlies might not come immediately to mind as an important story line to track, the fares of Boston’s Western Conference peers will have a significant impact on the Celtics future roster building efforts. Memphis currently sits eighth in the Western Conference standings, with a top-6 protected draft pick to be sent to Boston this summer.
That obligation rolls over to an unprotected pick in the 2021 draft should the Grizzlies stumble their way out of the position and into a bit of lottery luck. Such a scenario is highly unlikely. Even if Memphis falls out of the postseason picture, the chances of them leaping into the high lottery are slim. It’s a situation worth monitoring nonetheless.
The upcoming draft class is said to be light on talent, while the following year is loaded with more intriguing prospects. If the Celtics had their druthers they’d probably take a bite at the unprotected apple in 2021.
A strong push from the likes of the Portland Trail Blazers or New Orleans Pelicans that could topple the Grizzlies from their playoff perch isn’t inconceivable, though coupling it with Memphis jumping up in the draft through the lottery AND being bad enough next year to net the Celtics a juicy pick in 2021 is getting pretty close to such a threshold. It never hurts to dream though.
Potential playoff matchups
Postseason seeding has taken a bit of a backseat with the benefit of home court advantage negated by the neutral site, but there is still a massive boost for whatever teams finish with the top two spots in the Eastern Conference. The Milwaukee Bucks essentially have to win just one of their eight seeding games to end the year in first place, so for the purposes of this discussion we will lock them in as the #1 seed.
Whatever team finishes second will face off against either the Orlando Magic or the Brooklyn Nets (or if something truly crazy happens the Washington Wizards) in the first round of the playoffs, neither of which project to be particularly menacing in a seven-game series.
The rest of the East’s contenders - the Toronto Raptors, Miami Heat, Indiana Pacers, Philadelphia 76ers, and Celtics - occupy a fairly similar competitive stratosphere. Whomever can nab the two-seed will get to avoid matching up with one of the others until the second round. Boston is in shouting distance of the Raptors for that position in the standings as we head into the restart, though Toronto is firmly in the driver’s seat. However, the Celtics do own the tiebreak with the Raptors and a more favorable eight-game schedule in the bubble.
At the end of the day, where the Celtics finish in the standings is somewhat inconsequential. If they’re not good enough to beat their first-round foe, they certainly aren’t good enough to take down the Bucks or Raptors. Avoiding a taxing series early on has its benefits, but every champion needs to take and overcome their first punch to the mouth eventually. Fretting about when that happens isn’t a recipe for success.
Wondering about the Williamses
There will be stretches of games this postseason when Daniel Theis - due to fatigue or foul trouble - won’t be available to play and Enes Kanter is too much of a defensive liability to lean on. Unless they want to go with a SUPER small ball look, Boston will have to turn to either Grant or Robert Williams in those moments. Whether or not they’re up for the challenge remains to be seen.
Grant has been an impressive defender and tireless screen setter, but if he can’t knock down open looks from beyond the arc, he’ll be a huge drag on the Celtics offense. Defenders can stray far from him to clog up passing and driving lanes. Williams’ on/off stats for the year are fantastic, a reality that reflects his intelligence and ability to influence the game without scoring. But at some point in the playoffs - when teams have smart players on the court at all times and can game plan against specific weaknesses - he’ll need to prove himself a capable marksman to maintain his positive impact.
Boston’s other option plays a distinctly dissimilar game. Robert Williams is a lanky noodle of quick twitch muscle. He explodes to the rim to hammer down alley-oops, and pops off the floor with lightning quickness to obliterate shots by the rim. Williams is still perfecting the art of decision-making, and definitely airs on the side of over-excitability. He’s also barely ever healthy.
He’s managed to play just 323 minutes this year, and only 606 in his entire career, spending time on the bench sidelined by a malady of injuries. Williams has the athleticism to compete with anyone, but his feel for the game needs lots of seasoning.
Boston is going to need one of the Grant Williams/Robert Williams duo to step up in the playoffs. There is reason to believe they both have the capacity to do so, but you’d be excused if you have reservations. There’s a big difference between playing well in the regular season, and being a reliable postseason rotation player. Typically it takes time to develop from the former into the latter.