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Boston’s backups nearly steal one: 10 Takeaways from Celtics-Knicks

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Brad Stevens went deep into his bench and found some fight from his reserves in New York

NBA: Boston Celtics at New York Knicks Vincent Carchietta-USA TODAY Sports

1. Well...we made it! 72 games in a 146-day regular season in the books. Normally, we say the NBA season is a marathon and not a sprint. This season felt like we sprinted a marathon. And now we’ve crossed the regular season finish line. Thanks for hanging in there with us 72 times. Hopefully, we’ve got more than a few to go this season!

2. None of the Celtics top-7 players (Jaylen Brown, Evan Fournier, Marcus Smart, Jayson Tatum, Tristan Thompson, Kemba Walker and Robert Williams) played against the Knicks in the regular season. Other than Brown, who is out for the season, all had reported injuries, but none are expected to keep them out long-term.

While this was a “rest” day for all intents and purposes, and the first time none of the top-7 played, it was a fitting capper on a weird season for Boston. At no point during the season, including swapping Fournier in for Daniel Theis, did the Celtics have their top-7 rotation players available in the same game. It was a string of injuries and illnesses that kept this team from ever being whole. And with Brown out for the postseason, we’ll never get a look at the full 2020-21 Boston Celtics.

3. One player who probably deserves a nod as a top-7 player after his play this season is rookie guard Payton Pritchard. Outside of a six-game absence when he sprained his knee, Pritchard appeared in every game of his rookie season. Had he not hurt his knee, he likely would have been the only Celtics player to play all 72.

For most of the year, Pritchard’s game was either driving to the basket or spot-up shots. This sort of shot, off the dribble off a handoff, is one Pritchard has taken more as the season has gone along:

Pritchard is also improving as a playmaker. He was able to get into the paint regularly on his drives, but he usually looked to score. As the game slowed down for him, Pritchard was able to make plays for others off his drives. This is a nice find to Semi Ojeleye, who does a good job with the shot-fake to free himself for three:

4. Romeo Langford got the start and delivered the best game of his mostly lost sophomore season. In Boston’s switching system, Langford has to be able to hold up against bigs. He did a nice job on several possessions against Julius Randle. Here, Langford uses his length and quickness to pick up the steal and fastbreak dunk:

In his first two season, we’ve seen very little of Langford as a passer. This is a nice set and Langford delivers a perfect pass to the rolling Grant Williams for the basket. If Langford can make these sorts of plays as a passer that Evan Turner-like role might not be a stretch:

Continuing the Turner-like theme, Langford may never be a knock-down shooter, as he has long way to go with his jumper. But if he can attack bigs off the bounce like this to get to shots he’s comfortable with, it may not matter how he shoots from deep:

One more from Langford. This play is great because it starts with a terrific contest against the much bigger Randle. Then Langford is first to the loose ball and turns on the jets to score in transition. This is a full picture of where his skills are at right now:

5. Much like his predecessor as the 14th pick in the draft, we haven’t seen a lot of playmaking from Aaron Nesmith yet. Here, Nesmith works the Vanderbilt connection with Luke Kornet on a perfect pick-and-roll:

This play shows how far Nesmith has come. He brings the ball up in transition himself. That’s something he wouldn’t do earlier in the season. He also knows the clock and pushes for the 2-for-1 opportunity. And Nesmith recognizes he has the smaller defender, so he drives to his spot, pulls up and hits the short jumper. All around, this is good stuff from the rookie wing:

6. Grant Williams is a little better when he plays the game a little slower. He’s fairly ground-bound, so explosive moves are never going to be his thing. He starts this play with a nice show-and-go against Nerlens Noel. Then, instead of powering over Julius Randle in help defense, Williams slows down and uses the step-through to get an easy layup:

It’s been a rough second season at times for Williams. But he’s still a helpful player that will do good things for the Celtics moving forward.

7. Building on his game from the previous day, Jabari Parker had his Celtics-breakout on Sunday. He scored 18 points and showed off the versatile offensive game Boston signed him for. Parker has really nice touch when he gets to his spots. This little fadeaway is a good shot for him:

Because of his injuries and time out of rotations, it’s easy to forget how long Parker is and how explosive he can still be. This one-man transition play is a good example. He uses his dribble and skill on the spin-back and then it’s all length and burst from there:

Parker can always score. To make an impact on a team with good scorers, Parker also has to make plays as a passer. This is a terrific find to Carsen Edwards on the well-timed back cut:

We may not see much from Parker in the postseason, but Boston gave him a two-year contract for a reason. With an offseason to work and get comfortable in the system, the Celtics may have found a rotation player on the cheap for 2021-22.

8. If this was Tremont Waters’ swan song for Boston, he went out with a bang. Waters scored 13 of his 17 points in the fourth quarter to give the Celtics a chance at stealing an upset win. This step-back jumper is one Waters has to have because of his size. Isaiah Thomas used a side-step shot, where he drifted to his right to free himself up. If Waters can create space with a step-back of his own, it greatly increases his chance of sticking in the NBA:

9. Over the last two games, the Celtics deep bench players got a lot of run. Assuming everyone but Jaylen Brown is back for the Play-In Tournament, and then the playoffs, that’s six rotation spots spoken for. Payton Pritchard has another one. Generally, only 8-10 players will play regularly in the postseason. That leaves 2-3 open spots.

Aaron Nesmith has to have one of them with his hustle and shooting. Grant Williams will probably get his chances as well, as the Celtics need his versatility up front. That’s nine players. If Boston goes to a 10th, it’s probably situational. Luke Kornet can play as a fourth big. Jabari Parker can provide some scoring. Semi Ojeleye is useful for certain defensive matchups. And Romeo Langford has shown he can bring some stuff to the table.

10. After completing their sprint through the regular season, Boston will have a practice day on Monday to prepare for the Play-In Tournament on Tuesday at 9:00 PM ET. First up are the Washington Wizards. Russell Westbrook has been on fire and once again averaged a triple-double this season. Bradley Beal nearly won the scoring title, but he’s dealing with a hamstring injury right now. The rest of the Wizards are a collection of inconsistent role players who may or may not show up depending on the night. Sounds kind of a familiar, right?

If Boston beats Washington, they’ll be the 7th seed and will open the playoffs against the Brooklyn Nets. If the Celtics lose to the Wizards, they have one more shot at making the playoffs. Boston would then play the winner of the Indiana Pacers vs Charlotte Hornets game. The winner of that game would then advance as the 8th seed to play the Philadelphia 76ers.

By virtue of being the 7th seed, the Celtics will be at home for any Play-In Tournament games they play. If they can take care of business on Tuesday, they’ll get a few more days of rest and preparation before opening the postseason this weekend. Getting in the playoffs and getting there as whole as possible remains the goal. We’ll see this week if Boston is able to meet that goal or not.