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Center depth still a lurking question for surging Celtics

Kristaps Porzingis fouled out late in Friday’s game against the Heat and both Luke Kornet and Neemias Queta did not play over the past two games. Al Horford closed Friday’s win, but questions remain at the center position for Boston.

Miami Heat v Boston Celtics Photo by Maddie Schroeder/Getty Images

Jimmy Butler snuck in front of the Celtics’ defensive rotation after Tyler Herro lined up Kristaps Porziņģis in the left corner. Porziņģis tried to recover to grab a defensive rebound following a missed Kevin Love three. Butler grabbed it, drew contact from Porziņģis and fouled him out with three minutes remaining. Butler hit free throws to pull the Heat within five points.

Porziņģis struggled to stay on the floor against Bam Adebayo’s post-ups and face-ups, while Miami effectively forced fouls on the big man by creating mismatches with Herro and Butler on-ball. The Celtics tried to stash Porziņģis on Love, and Joe Mazzulla’s decision to keep Porziņģis in the game with two early fouls away from actions by inserting Al Horford at the five paid off in the eventual win. The Celtics led by seven points when Porziņģis fouled out, and Horford helped create the Miami imbalance that set up Jrue Holiday’s game-icing shot.

Horford has come off the bench in the first three wins, which now looks like the Celtics’ primary starting lineup look given its early success (+31.2 per 100). Depth concerns at center would always factor into that decision too, and while Boston maintains belief in Luke Kornet, and Neemias Queta impressed the team enough to keep him around as Maine’s season gets underway, only Kornet logged eight minutes between them so far. Queta, questionable tonight against Indiana, missed Monday’s win with right foot soreness.

Queta suffered a stress reaction in the same foot in July during Summer League and missed the end of Sacramento’s Vegas slate. He underwent an MRI and x-ray that revealed no fracture at the time, but rather a metatarsal capsule sprain. It’s worth watching his status as Maine’s training camp began on Monday. The team initially hoped his preseason would vault him into the mix for some front court minutes in Boston rather than the G-League.

It’s too early to panic about the third string center situation while the top of the Celtics’ rotation has dominated big, playoff-caliber front lines. The situation will linger as a concern throughout any success the Celtics achieve early in the schedule though. Porziņģis played 65 games last year after appearing in 51 the year before and 43 in 2021. Al Horford can’t replicate the gravity Porziņģis draws on offense and at 37, would assume over 30 minutes of workload if Porziņģis misses time. The bench faltered overall on Monday, outscored by 12.5 points per 100 possessions by Washington’s second unit and falling to 30th with 15.1 PPG.

Instead, small ball returned alongside Porziņģis as the team’s primary look with some double big mixed into the rotation. The versatility of some of the team’s longer bench wings intrigues as a way to steal some minutes against opposing front court scorers.

Oshae Brissett factored into the defense against Adebayo, forcing him to travel on a third quarter switch. Holiday held Julius Randle to 1-for-10 shooting on Opening Night. Lamar Stevens told CLNS Media/CelticsBlog during training camp that he’s prepared to play some five here.

Boston will undoubtedly explore all those options before making an addition to the front court, something Brad Stevens didn’t rule out after trading Robert Williams III. The Celtics maintain a $6.2 million trade exception after sending Grant Williams to Dallas and more trade flexibility emerges with contracts lower down on the roster on December 15.

“We’ll continue to look at it,” Stevens said. “We’ll see how it all looks. We’ve had the real benefit of watching a packed gym for the last few weeks, in small groups and some open gyms that guys have played. We’ve been really encouraged and impressed by some of the people that people don’t talk about on our team a lot. We’ll see how that all plays itself out, but we’ve talked about trying to balance that.”

The Celtics waived Wenyen Gabriel earlier this month, one of the centers who impressed them in the weeks leading up to camp — an expression of their confidence in the players leftover. Nathan Knight, more of an NBA power forward, probably won’t factor in significantly with the pro team unless an emergency happens after Boston signed him to a two-way deal last week.

The Celtics have various second-round picks and even the Holiday trade left some firsts available, with low-cost centers like Andre Drummond, Charles Bassey, Xavier Tillman and others potentially available down the line if their teams fall out of the playoff mix. Most of those players come with limitations comparable to Kornet though, without the familiarity.

As the Celtics emphasize positional versatility and focus more on offense, speed and spacing than size in their lineups, the center depth won’t emerge as a problem unless injuries do. While that’s the case with any position on any team, Porziņģis carries more health risk than most players and his 38 active minutes on both ends of the floor on Opening Night, along with fouling out brought reminders of how tenuous Boston’s early success built on his efforts could prove if he becomes unavailable. Horford’s ready to back him up for now, but only time will tell if the Celtics need to add at the position like they did last year.

“My body is much more mature than it was when I was 20 years old,” Porziņģis said at Media Day. “The injuries that I had, the longer recovery ones, were all contact injuries, the ACL ... I always kept that in mind and worked toward getting healthy, and I think last season was a good example. I could’ve played 70+ games last season, and I felt great throughout the year. Most of the games I actually missed because I was sick, not because of injuries, and I expect that from myself again this season, being on the court for all the games. I know the medical staff is gonna do their part and tell me when I can and when I shouldn’t play, but I want to play out there every game I can and I will make sure I do so.”

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