With 6:19 to go in the first quarter on Wednesday night with the Boston Celtics trailing the Brooklyn Nets 14-11, Jayson Tatum picked up his second personal foul on a charge. With Kemba Walker on a rest day and a night after backfiring by letting Marcus Smart play with foul trouble, Brad Stevens wasn’t taking any chances. Stevens looked down the long, socially-distanced bench and summoned rookie wing Romeo Langford in to the game.
Langford immediately delivered, as Boston was +12 over the final six minutes of the first quarter. By the time the game was over, the rookie had a major impact, despite a pedestrian stat-line of four points on three field goal attempts. Langford was +27 for the night in his nearly 26 minutes, and it felt like he was one of the best Celtics on the floor.
Most importantly, Langford may have proved to Brad Stevens that he can be trusted as the games take on more importance.
It hasn’t been an easy transition to the NBA for Langford. He missed all of Summer League while recovering from a thumb injury suffered at Indiana University. Langford then suffered a groin injury that cost him time during his first NBA training camp. Then, in early-December, Langford suffered a pair of ankle injuries while with the Maine Red Claws that cost him even more time.
In addition to lost time, the Indiana product faced an uphill battle for minutes on the Celtics. Boston features Tatum, Jaylen Brown, Gordon Hayward and Smart as wing players. That’s a tough rotation to crack. Langford isn’t a ballhandler, nor can he play as a big, so he did a lot of sitting and waiting.
When Hayward fractured his hand, Langford got his first opportunity. He averaged over 19 minutes a night over a four-game set in mid-December. Boston went 4-0 during that time, blowing out the Pistons, Hornets, Raptors and Cavaliers.
As the team got healthy, Langford went back to the bench and didn’t reappear for meaningful minutes until he drew his first, and only, start of the season when Boston was down both Walker and Smart against Orlando. Langford played well that night and earned minutes the next game against Atlanta, where he set a career-high with 16 points, his only double-figure scoring effort of the season so far.
In the bubble, Langford didn’t play in Boston’s first two games. He made a cameo against the Heat after Smart fouled out. Then came his long run against the Nets. It’s that appearance that gives us a glimpse of how a little-used rookie has rapidly become the most important Celtic in the bubble.
Langford was thrown right into the fire and asked to guard Caris LeVert immediately. You probably remember LeVert torching Boston for 51 points the last time these teams met. That’s not an easy cover for anyone, never mind a cold rookie.
Langford proved up to the task. On this clip, Langford does three good things:
First, he helps on Joe Harris on the drive. Second, he quickly recovers to LeVert at the arc. Third, Langford reads LeVert on the half-spin baseline drive and forces the turnover.
Later in the game, Langford showed up again on defense. First, he takes the hit from Timothe Luwawu-Cabarrot in the chest and still strips TLC:
Then, Langford shows those quick, strong hands again with a strip on Harris:
But why is Romeo Langford the most important Boston bubble baller?
Gordon Hayward is going to leave the Celtics sometime next month for the birth of his son. If all goes how Boston hopes, Hayward will leave during the second round or possibly the conference finals. That’s shaping up to look like matchups against the Toronto Raptors and Milwaukee Bucks, should the Celtics advance that far. On the low-end, Hayward will be out for a week. On the high-end, it will be more like 10 days.
No matter how you slice it, Hayward will be a massive loss for Boston. He’s had a terrific year offensively and is a better-than-you-think defender. The Celtics can make up for the offensive hit they’ll take. Jayson Tatum and Jaylen Brown are both capable of a bit more, plus Kemba Walker is healthy.
Defensively, Marcus Smart will probably start for Hayward and we know that he’ll be great. But there will be 33 minutes per game to replace from Hayward. Smart already plays 32 and Brown and Tatum are both at 34. Maybe they each see a slight uptick, but there will be at least 25 wing minutes that need filled.
Sure, Semi Ojeleye will see some more minutes, but he’s best against bigger wings and quick forwards who handle the ball a lot. And, to be generous, Ojeleye has looked awful during the restart. He’s been tentative and unsure. In a playoff game, that will kill the Celtics.
On the flip side Langford looks confident and decisive. On this clip, he drives right to the cup. He misses, but uses his quick second-jump for the putback:
This clip is a miss too, but that’s not really important. He catches and lets it fly with confidence:
If Langford brings the effort that he’s shown on defense several times this year, that will get him minutes when Hayward leaves the bubble. On offense, think about young Marcus Smart. Sure, he missed a lot, but Smart took the shots. That alone caused opponents to have to guard him. At a minimum, Langford can replicate that.
Someone has to play when Hayward leaves. It’s been extremely limited flashes of brilliance, but it should be the rookie from Indiana. Given that Boston knows what they can expect from everyone else, that makes Romeo Langford the most important Celtic in the bubble.