On to the playoffs. Or at least, on to the play-in tournament and then maybe to the playoffs.
After falling in both home games of a mini-series to the Miami Heat, the Celtics’ fate has been all but sealed. A 129-121 loss on Tuesday night saddled Boston with a 35-34 record and squarely into the 7-seed with three road games to go.
To make matters worse, the team heads into the postseason without All-Star Jaylen Brown who was ruled out for the remainder of the season with a torn ligament in his non-shooting hand and the availability of Robert Williams with turf toe.
The Celtics have three games remaining all on the road: tonight in Cleveland followed by two days of rest and then a back-to-back in Minnesota and the finale at Madison Square Garden on Sunday. While there’s still potentially some jockeying to do in the standings, Boston’s focus now is what they can do with what they have.
“We still have a week left before the play-in starts. Time is running out to (peak at the right time). So, we gotta play well tomorrow,” Brad Stevens said after the Celtics’ comeback again fell short against the Heat. “We gotta play better and see if we can’t find the best version of ourselves over the next week and get ready likely for next Tuesday.”
Stevens hinted that he’ll be scoreboard watching over the next few days and will manage the minutes of his key players, including Kemba Walker.
“Kemba is obviously an enormous key for us. I thought he did a lot of good things tonight. His energy is something we need at a high level for us to be the best that we can be,” Stevens said.
Walker scored a season-high 36 points in the loss, capping off a seven-game stretch where he’s nearly averaged 30 points per game on over 50% shooting from the field and 46% from behind the arc. The careful ramp up of Walker’s activity since offseason knee surgery seems to have worked and now, there’s no doubt that any postseason success will be tied to the point guard’s playoff performance.
“We just wanna finish as strong as we can. See how everything plays out. Just take it game by game. That’s all you can do. You can’t sit back and complain or anything like that,” the usually upbeat Walker said. “You gotta look forward. Try to continue to get better. Try to push forward. Try to get better as a team which is on myself and a few other guys as well. I’ll do that for sure.”
The road ahead is riddled. If the Celtics can hold on to 7th in the East, they’ll host either the Pacers, Hornets, and Wizards. Indiana limps into the playoffs as well, but they should have at least Domantas Sabonis, Malcolm Brogdon, and the surging Caris Levert available. Charlotte is already re-integrating LaMelo Ball and the trio of former Celtics Gordon Hayward-Terry Rozier-Brad Wanaker could provide a juicy narrative heading into a win-or-go-home game. Washington is one of the hottest teams in the entire league and nobody wants to face Russell Westbrook and Bradley Beal in a one off.
For Boston, with all the injuries, they could be searching for (another) new identity in this trying season. As evidenced by the last two games against the Heat, the Celtics are small, young, and inexperienced. That combination has made them susceptible defending the arc and being a reliable offensive team.
“I truly believe that if we’re going to be any good, we’ve really got to pressure the ball because of our size. We haven’t been as good at that. We haven’t been as good at getting into the airspace of shooters,” Stevens said after Miami hit 32 of 65 three-pointers over the last three days.
And without Brown’s efficient 25 points a night, the team will also have to adjust on the other side of the ball, too. “We have to find the best version of this group that’s available right now. Some of that will be off the ball cuts, some of that will be with the ball, some of that will be spacing appropriately so we can drive the ball. We’ve always got to make the right reads and get off of it quickly.”
All season, we’ve seen what the best of this team looks like. We’ve seen it in fits and starts of quarters, a good half here and there, and even a stretch of games where they look like contenders. But what has plagued them all year has been consistency. The marathon of a regular season, even one as condensed as 2020-2021, can lull teams into complacency, but the playoffs command an everyday focus and more so, a whole new mindset.
“It’s a pride thing. Individually, we just got to look in the mirror and ask ourselves, ‘are we giving it every single thing on that end of the floor?’ To be honest, we’re not. Not on every possession,” Walker lamented. “There might be a few possessions in a row, but we take a few off and that’s all of us. We just gotta look in that mirror. If we really want to win and take this thing to another level, that’s what we gotta do.”
“I’m sure everybody’s kinda writing us off, especially after losing JB. It’s just the kinda year that it’s been, but you know, myself and everybody in that locker room, we still fighting and we still believe in one another,” Jayson Tatum said. Tatum consulted Brown, weighed his options after the diagnosis, and ultimately decided that long-term health was the priority. In the short term, however, Tatum and the Celtics have a chance to salvage this lost season.
“We’re just taking it one game at a time. And I just think that’s what’s most important: fight until it’s over.”