The Boston Celtics dominated the Brooklyn Nets on Wednesday night in easily their most convincing performance of what has otherwise been an up-and-down return to play in Orlando. Beyond the satisfying victory, the Celtics assuaged frustrated fans another way, as Brad Stevens opened up the bench to afford his core rotation some rest in their first back-to-back in over four months. Jayson Tatum and Jaylen Brown saw less than 25 minutes apiece, while Kemba Walker sat out entirely. In their stead, the younger players on the back end of the Celtics roster got a chance to shine.
Robert Williams and Romeo Langford stole the show, with the former scoring 18 points on perfect shooting and the latter finishing a team-high +27 on the night. Javonte Green scored eight points, Carsen Edwards tacked on seven with two made three-pointers and Grant Williams emerged at the end of regulation for a few spot minutes as well. It was a refreshing injection of youth in the midst of an uneven start that has put some peripheral players like Enes Kanter, Brad Wanamaker, and Semi Ojeleye under fan scrutiny.
Unfortunately, as you may have guessed from the headline, I’m here to be a bit of a wet blanket. While the young Celtics looked great against the Nets, I’m not sure the bubble is the best place to afford them many more minutes. If the Celtics are going to make a deep playoff run, getting the core rotation up to speed needs to be the immediate concern.
Inconsistency has been a major theme of the Celtics’ 2-2 start in the bubble. That’s to be expected after a four-month layoff from competitive basketball. The obvious signs of rust are easy to point out, like Tatum’s 2-of-18 performance against Milwaukee or Marcus Smart’s 16-minute, foul-out against Miami, but the layoff has been present in other ways as well. The defense has been terrible, ranking 17th among the 22 bubble teams in defensive rating (114.9). They’ve blown leads, gone through offensive dry spells, and struggled with fouls.
These are all issues of execution. Coming off more than four months without organized basketball, the Celtics just lack the cohesion they might otherwise have this close to the playoffs under ordinary circumstances. It’s an understandable problem, but one they don’t have much time to fix. And while the team’s struggles might seem to inspire some rotation changes, I’d argue that the opposite is true. The Celtics need to be prioritizing the veteran core of their rotation, even though it comes at the expense of promising young players like Robert Williams, Romeo Langford, and Tremont Waters in the short term.
Williams is one of the most remarkable athletes to don a Celtics’ jersey in some time, a lanky pogo-stick of a player who compiles highlight reel blocks and thunderous finishes to lobs with incredible frequency. It’s hard to watch him play and not want to carve out a major rotation role for him, especially as his primary competition for minutes, Kanter, bleeds points in frustrating fashion on the defensive end of the court.
And yet, while Williams flashes the ability to make huge plays, the routine ones still sometimes elude him. A late rotation here, a blown assignment there; he’s often guilty of surrendering easy buckets in the pursuit of big blocks. Against that scraped-together Nets lineup (most of his minutes came against undrafted rookie Donta Hall), it isn’t a huge issue. Against the murderer’s row of talented bigs in the upper echelon of the Eastern Conference, it’s much more of a concern.
Then there’s Tremont Waters, the reigning G-League MVP who has shown some promising flashes at the NBA level on his two-way deal. Waters has yet to see the court in the resumed regular season thus far, distantly buried behind Kemba Walker, Marcus Smart, and Brad Wanamaker in the team’s point guard hierarchy. He’s become a quick fan favorite thanks to his hustle and the balanced all-around game he showcased with the Red Claws.
The issue with Waters is fairly straightforward: he just hasn’t played for the Celtics very much. Aside from a few brief scrimmage cameos, he’s appeared in only 10 regular season games with the team. The jump from the G-League to the NBA is substantial, and as of yet, winning G-League MVP hasn’t proved to be very predictive of success at the next level. Wanamaker may have frustrating defensive lapses and the occasional bout of offensive tunnel vision that has made him a scapegoat of late, but by and large, he’s been a steady veteran presence in the background of this talented roster.
The most direct path to playoff minutes may in fact lie ahead of Langford. With Gordon Hayward expected to leave the bubble at some point during the playoffs for the birth of his fourth child, the Celtics may find themselves facing an abrupt lack of depth on the wings in the midst of a later playoff round against a tough Eastern Conference opponent. As CelticsBlog’s own Keith Smith discussed yesterday, Langford has played his way into Stevens’ good graces with hustle and tough defense. If there’s going to be a change in Boston’s rotation, Langford leapfrogging the struggling Semi Ojeleye seems to be the most likely.
I’m not here to argue the Celtics’ young bench players don’t deserve minutes. They do, and in normal circumstances, they would get them. An 82-game regular season presents plenty of opportunities for on-court experience at the NBA level — injuries, back-to-backs, and the like. But the bubble is not a normal circumstance, and these eight seeding games serve a greater purpose than equivalent games near the end of your average regular season. The Celtics have just four more games to find a rhythm before diving headlong into a brutal Eastern Conference playoff landscape. They just can’t afford the growing pains of NBA youth right now.
It’s easy to dream on the potential of young players in the NBA. Both Williamses, Langford and perhaps even Waters would appear to have NBA rotation upside. That’s understandably more compelling than a steady-but-occasionally-frustrating Wanamaker or the archaic post stylings of Kanter. In the unprecedented circumstances of the NBA bubble, though, the Celtics already lack cohesion. Introducing more inexperience to the mix on the fly may only exacerbate the problem. Unfortunately, that might leave the Celtics’ youngsters waiting until next season for their shot.