With most of the postseason field still jockeying for position in the final weekend of the regular season, the Celtics had what looked like a preseason game in Minneapolis.
Tremont Waters filled the box score. Luke Kornet went toe-to-toe with Karl Anthony-Towns. Grant Williams played early and played well.
In the end, Boston won in a rout 124-108 in a game that won't affect their seeding or determine their opponent in the play-in tournament next week. The win will have very little bearing on their draft pick this summer. However, for a team that has faltered at the end of the regular season, losers of 9 of their last 14 games, and with lowered expectations missing a key All-Star for the playoffs, Game #71 did have intangible value outside of guaranteeing at least a .500 record and some playing time for some players that may not even be on the roster next season.
"People can say games don’t mean as much, whatever the case may be. We needed to feel good,” Brad Stevens said. “We needed to get a good win after playing well the whole day and I thought it was really important when we step on this plane today to feel a little bit better about going in with the right mentality, taking what we talked about in practice yesterday, and playing the right way defensively and offensively together and finishing the game.”
The Celtics were without Kemba Walker, Marcus Smart, Tristan Thompson, Robert Williams, and Jaylen Brown, five integral parts of a rotation that team management and fans alike were hoping to see compete in the playoffs. Brown has been ruled out for the remainder of the season and there’s optimism that Williams will be available next week after going through practice on Friday without incident, but even with everybody coming back, the mood and vibe around the team hasn’t exactly been positive.
Brown’s injury news coupled with two consecutive losses to the Miami Heat at TD Garden deflated any hope that the team could make any noise in the postseason, and yet, those that made the trip to Minneapolis and later this afternoon in New York see the merciful close of the worst (period) regular (period) season (period) ever (period) as a chance to keep building.
“Every chance I get to play with Jayson, Kemba, and all the key guys for this team, I think it’s a great opportunity for me to understand their spots, their tendencies, what they like to do, how I can help them,” Evan Fournier said after hitting 5-of-8 from behind the arc and dishing out six assists. “Especially with Jayson in an iso situation, how I can cut, how I can be a spot up shooter right next to him, and basically, give him more options.”
Stevens could have opted to rest Fournier and Tatum with really nothing of consequence on the line. But both campaigned to play.
“They both are guys that practiced hard yesterday, came to play today. They just like to play,” Stevens said. “I think Evan, every time he’s been on the court post-COVID, has been good as far as he’s getting a little more comfortable each time. Jayson just loves to play, loves to compete, likes to be part of the whole thing.”
It’s unclear if either will see the floor at Madison Square Garden this afternoon, but if Saturday was a final tune-up before Tuesday’s tip of the play-in tournament, both looked ready for whatever the postseason has in store. Tatum scored 26 points in 26 minutes and was a +21 on the afternoon.
“I knew that we had a lot of guys that weren’t able to play, so that meant a lot of the other guys would get an opportunity. Just to come out there, kind of play with different groups and different lineups, have everybody get an opportunity, and just a chance to play well,” Tatum said.
The Celtics will wrap up the year at 1 pm against the Knicks. New York will still have something to play for; they could finish anywhere between 4 and 6 in the Eastern Conference depending on the outcome of the season finale. The Celtics, on the other hand, are just looking to gain momentum with the right mindset heading back to Boston.
“More than just winning, it’s about playing the right way, playing with confidence, and executing well. It’s always important to play well. Always,” Fournier said. “It doesn’t matter who you’re playing against or what the circumstances are. You want to go out there and play your brand of basketball.”