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No expectations left now: 10 Takeaways from Celtics-Heat

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Boston’s loss to Miami has the Play-In Tournament all but a certainty for this season

NBA: Miami Heat at Boston Celtics David Butler II-USA TODAY Sports

1. We’re going to start this version of the Takeaways with kind of a “State of the Takeaways”. We’ll get to the game fairly quickly, but wanted you to have a sense of where things are at.

The Takeaways has always been a space to break down what happened in the most recent game, and sometimes with thoughts mixed in on the season as a whole. We strive to be balanced, but admittedly lean towards the positive side more than the negative.

For the rest of this regular season, we’re going to use this space to really try and be as positive as possible. That starts with a negative, but realistic statement: this version of the Boston Celtics isn’t likely going anywhere. They may still win in the Play-In Tournament to get to the playoffs. From there, it was always going to be an uphill battle, but it’s downright Sisyphean now. But that’s not a reason to unnecessarily dump on the team for all of the somewhere between 5-6 and however many playoff games are left.

We’ll call out some bad stuff, including in this version, but we’re going to highlight some positives. They are still there, even if you have to sift through some bad first.

We hope you’ll keep reading, because even if the team is down, we’re still here. And we appreciate you Dear Reader. More than you know!

2. On to the Takeaways…sort of.

We have to start with a story out of Boston sports radio that came out during the day on Tuesday. On the Celtics flagship radio station, 98.5 FM The Sports Hub, two midday hosts postulated that Jaylen Brown quit on Boston this season. Their speculation was rooted in Brown playing in just enough regular season games to trigger a games-played bonus in his contract. As soon as he did that, their hypothesis goes, Brown shut things down to have surgery.

Let’s break this down a little.

Brown may have injured his wrist as far back as the game at the Los Angeles Lakers on April 15. In that game, Brown went down on a drive and was later seen shaking and flexing his left hand. Brown was out for three of the next four games, but never due to a wrist injury. 12 days after the Lakers game, Brown’s left hand/wrist was visibly bothering him in a game against the Oklahoma City Thunder.

That game vs the Thunder was the first time Brown seemed to really have something going on. He played in three more games after that. At the end of a loss against Portland, Brown collided with Jayson Tatum at the scorer’s table and both left the game. Tatum was fine, but Brown was ruled out with a sprained right ankle.

Now, it is 100% fair game to point out that Brown’s games-played bonus kicked in once he played his 58th game of the season. And that’s exactly how many games Brown played.

What’s unfair is that at no point was Brown ever reported to be dealing with, or on the injury report with, anything related to his left wrist. It was knee soreness and sprained ankles that had kept him out of games.

Much like Romeo Langford, who had the same injury with his right wrist, this seems to have been something Brown could have played through. But, like with Langford, when he was down with another injury, they checked the wrist and discovered the extent of the injury.

This injury comes with a potentially lengthy recovery time of 3-6 months. Given that the 2020-21 Boston Celtics were a longshot at best to make a playoff run, Brown had surgery now to conserve as much of the 2021-22 season as possible. Seems like a smart and reasonable tradeoff.

Finally, there is the matter of the bonus itself. Brown’s bonus for 58 games-played is just under $450,000. Yes, that is a lot of money. And Brown earned every penny of it. But, please note that Brown is expected to make over $25 million for the 2020-21 season. $450,000 is a relative drop in the bucket.

This seems to be a classic case of scapegoating a player without anything to really back it. And it’s being done in a way that feels, at best, slimy and wrong, and potentially a lot worse.

3. One last thing on Jaylen Brown’s injury, but related to his relationship with Jayson Tatum. After the loss to the Heat on Tuesday night, Tatum was asked for his feelings about Brown being out. Tatum talked about how much they’ll miss Brown and what a great player he is. But what really stood out was Tatum mentioning how Brown reached out to him while deciding what to do about his wrist. Tatum said he made sure Brown knew that he supported him in whatever decision Brown made. And that he has to take care of himself and what’s best for him long-term.

There’s been a lot of speculation, lots of it driven by the same that said Brown quit, that Tatum and Brown don’t really get along. And that one has to go for the Celtics to be at their best. It’s clear that the first isn’t true at all. And as for the second, their track record together, this season notwithstanding, proves that incorrect as well.

4. As for the game against the Miami Heat, Boston’s loss probably sealed their fate for the Play-In Tournament. Unlike in some of their recent losses, the Celtics didn’t come out flat. They looked good right up until the closing moments of the first half. A little sloppiness to close the second quarter allowed the Heat to build some breathing room at the break.

In the third quarter, things went sideways somewhat and that continued into the first half of the fourth quarter. As is their nature, Boston fought back and made it a game over the last five minutes or so.

This game showed that there is a sizeable gap between the Celtics when they aren’t at full strength and the Heat when they are mostly healthy. That gap, and the even larger one between Boston and Brooklyn, Milwaukee and Philadelphia, are signs that there is a lot of roster work to be done this offseason.

5. Part of that roster work is going to involve re-signing Evan Fournier. We’ve said it before, but it bears repeating: re-signing Fournier has to be priority number one this summer. The investment of over half of the Gordon Hayward TPE, Fournier’s play and the Celtics relative inability to replace him on the roster, all necessitate re-signing him.

On a fully healthy Celtics team, which hopefully they will be at the start of or early into the 2021-22 season, Fournier can play a critical role. He had 20 points and eight assists vs Miami on Tuesday. Fournier’s ability to play both on and off-ball is huge, given how much usage Boston’s All-Stars take up.

After a season where too many possessions of great ball movement finished in a miss, these plays are great to see. This first play is Fournier creating a good look. This isn’t an easy find to the opposite corner, but Fournier’s size allows him to spot Marcus Smart open:

Jayson Tatum does a nice job getting into the paint here. He draws the defense and skips it to Marcus Smart, who quickly fires it to the corner to Fournier:

One more play of good stuff from Fournier and others. This set opened the second quarter. It’s got some good ball and player movement early on. Because Aaron Nesmith has been shooting it well, he draws two defenders with him. Nesmith is making quick decisions now, and he immediately zips the pass to Fournier for the open triple:

6. It’s a little sad that it’s come with Boston on a downswing, but Kemba Walker is playing some of his best basketball as a Celtic. He’s been on a tear lately and looks like the guy who was an All-Star in 2020.

Walker pushed the ball a lot on Tuesday night. This is a good example. He gets the ball up quickly before Miami can set their defense. At the top of the key, Walker turns on the jets before finishing through contact for the and-1:

Here’s some more of that good ball movement. It starts with Tatum getting deep into the Heat defense. A nice pass out to Fournier, followed by a swing to Walker in the corner and Boston has three points:

Whatever the rest of this season brings, the Celtics plan with Kemba Walker has worked. He’s at his best late in the season, even if the team isn’t necessarily in the same place.

7. What happened to Payton Pritchard? For the season, the rookie guard has averaged just a tick under 19 minutes per game. He hasn’t hit that mark in any of the last six games.

When Carsen Edwards came in when Kemba Walker briefly left the game in the first quarter, it was assumed that was Brad Stevens keeping his rotation intact. Most coaches do similar things vs juggling everything that early in a game.

Then Pritchard didn’t play until much later. And then didn’t play much at all. It’s been a little baffling as to why he’s dropped out of the rotation, especially when the team could seemingly use his shooting.

8. Boston’s other rookie is growing up really fast now. We’ve highlighted Aaron Nesmith scoring off the dribble recently. That’s great. What’s also great is Nesmith making plays as a passer now too.

In the third clip of these Takeaways, you saw Nesmith make a quick swing to Evan Fournier. Here, he attacks the rim and makes a nice pass to Grant Williams for the easy bucket:

Watching Nesmith, and hopefully Payton Pritchard too, see minutes in high-leverage postseason games is something we can all take joy in.

9. How disconnected and lost is this team on defense right now? This play is a perfect example. Miami loves to run a series of cuts of off other cuts, often without screens. Such is the benefit of having a great passing big like Bam Adebayo.

Here, Goran Dragic has cut up to the top of the key, while Duncan Robinson cuts down and out. Boston’s communication is bad. Jayson Tatum jumps Dragic cut to take him away, leaving Kemba Walker to drop off and trail Robinson. Tatum and Walker don’t talk and both stick with Dragic. The result is leaving the one guy for Miami, and maybe in the entre NBA, wide open that you can’t leave wide open:

10. Those sorts of plays, like the one above, are indicative of what we’ll probably see a decent amount of over the next few games and beyond. The defense just isn’t there this year. They’ve never been connected this season. It’s a problem they’ve been unable to fix.

That said, the Celtics have made some small improvements on defense. They’ve been aggressive defending the rim lately. The on-ball defense against dribblers has been fairly solid. It’s the off-ball stuff and the switching that isn’t where it usually is.

Those small improvements, and the development of the young players, are what you’re looking for the rest of this season. If you focus on that, it’s likely your viewing experience will be just fine.

This team is now sort of like the early Brad Stevens’ groups. You can go into games with no expectations and you might get surprised with punctuations of joy. That’s not the worst way to end a really tough year, before heading into a pivotal offseason.