There’s no maneuvering around the disappointment following Tuesday night’s loss to the Miami Heat. Undefeated against them in their two previous meetings and relieved of having to halt Jimmy Butler (ankle soreness), Boston’s energy was lacking and they paid for it.
Brooklyn infamously entered the bubble with a roster that was anything but intact. But three games in and they’re a surprising 2-1, including their most recent over the league-leading Milwaukee Bucks, who sought rest for their best players more than anything else but played them enough to warrant the outcome a surprising one.
Absent from that win were Caris LeVert, Joe Harris, and Jarrett Allen. The former two sat with injuries and are probable for Wednesday’s game. Allen was rested and should be good to go.
The last time these two teams met was eight days before the NBA’s shutdown in one of the more thrilling if not improbable games of the season. Boston led by as many as 21 in the second half. Brooklyn, without Kyrie Irving, got the game into overtime and escaped TD Garden with a nine-point win on the shoulders of Caris LeVert’s career-high 51 points.
Boston will be without Kemba Walker in the halfway point of their seeding games. While Brad Stevens assures his point guard won’t see a minutes restriction in the playoffs, Walker, who put up 14 points on 4-of-9 shooting against Miami with four assists, has taken an every-other-day approach to the rehab of his right knee. On the second night of a back-to-back, that plan relegates him to street clothes today.
Jayson Tatum led Boston in scoring against the Heat with 23 points on 6-of-11 shooting. He seems to have put his opening dud against the Bucks behind him, and the Celtics will need him to carry more of the load in Walker’s absence against Brooklyn.
Boston is 1-2 in three seeding games. A few things go in the opposite direction and they could very well be 0-3. Miami is creeping up in the standings, now only 1.5 games behind for the #3 seed.
More important than seeding, however, is the confidence with which Boston enters its first-round matchup. If the postseason began today, there wouldn’t be much, but the Nets are a favorable matchup to begin rebuilding that foundation.
PG – Brad Wanamaker – Tyler Johnson
SG – Jaylen Brown – Joe Harris
SF – Gordon Hayward – Caris LeVert
PF – Jayson Tatum – Rodions Kurucs
C – Daniel Theis – Jarrett Allen
BOS - Kemba Walker (Rest)
BKN - Jamal Crawford (Hamstring)
How To Watch
Time – 9:00 pm EST
TV – NBC Sports Boston, ESPN, NBA League Pass
What to watch for
Can the Celtics rediscover their elite defense?
Boston has been the fifth-best defensive team throughout the regular season. That prowess has not traveled to the bubble, where only Portland and Philadelphia are surrendering more points per 100 possessions than Boston’s 118 through three seeding games.
Their three opponents don’t exactly fall on the easier side when it comes to defensive results. Portland, Miami, and Milwaukee rank fifth, sixth, and seventh, respectively, in offensive rating. However, that’s hardly an excuse considering the likely path of Boston’s Finals hopes, one that could include any of the other top three East teams, none of whom rank lower than 12th in offense.
“Our defense has to improve from what it’s been in the first three games,” Brad Stevens said following the loss to Miami. “At the beginning of the year, I thought we guarded with great intensity and we kept the ball out of the paint. We’re not doing as good of a job now at keeping the ball out of the paint. If it gets down there, we’re toast.”
Brooklyn hardly strikes fear into its seeding opponents, but the Celtics have faced their wrath before. Jarrett Allen punished Boston’s suspect interior for 17 points and 14 rebounds (five offensive) back in November. LeVert’s 51 points on March 3 included 26 in the fourth and 11 in overtime.
The Celtics might already be locked into a top-4 seed. That hardly does any good if they enter the playoffs sputtering where they should be thriving. They need to start playing like it in the ways the do best, starting at the defensive end against an opponent that, despite the potential for damage, ultimately gives them a supreme opportunity to do so.
How Boston fills the Kemba void
Walker wasn’t filling his accustomed minutes load in Boston’s three scrimmage games, 22.6 in the bubble compared to 31.3 a game on the season. Nevertheless, his absence demands those minutes to be filled.
Brad Wanamaker has done enough to earn over 19 minutes a night as the backup point guard, but there’s a reason Stevens has kept him off the bench in 13 of the 14 games Walker has missed this season.
As steady a floor general as the 31-year-old is, the Celtics are giving up an extra 2.5 points per 100 possessions defensively with Wanamaker and are a minus-4.0 on offense per Cleaning The Glass.
Those numbers are a bit easier to stomach in a role that simply has Wanamaker fill the time between Walker’s breaks, less so when you ask him to fill Kemba’s starting shoes.
Marcus Smart has played 23.0 percent of his minutes this season at point guard. While Boston’s offense struggles, its defense ranks in the 95th percentile, perhaps exactly what’s needed to reboot the Celtics’ aforementioned sputtering defensive effort.
No matter who officially starts in Walker’s spot, expect playmaking responsibilities to be split among Boston’s trio of starting wings. Jaylen Brown and Jayson Tatum have come a long way as creators while Gordon Hayward has spent time initiating the offense.
Can the Celtics avoid complacency?
Boston is expected to come out victorious against a Nets team missing a handful of its top players. The same could’ve been said in their matchup against a Miami team without Jimmy Butler. Look what happened there.
The Heat without Butler are still miles ahead of what’s left of these Nets, but the point remains the same. Complacency is a legitimate factor in certain instances. Boston let it affect their chances against a conference foe, lifeless and sloppy on defense, expected to be handed the win because the odds suggested it.
It’s easy to view these Nets as an afterthought, but the Celtics shouldn’t feel like they have that luxury. Not only is the third seed still technically up for Miami’s grasp, but Boston hasn’t exactly been building the right habits as the postseason nears with a 1-2 record.
They need to start trending in the right direction. The only way to do that is to handle the only game that matters: the next one. Brooklyn doesn’t inspire much motivation in that regard, but the Celtics better find the means to avoid a pit that will only grow deeper if they don’t.