By Matthew Geagan, CBS Boston
BOSTON (CBS) — It’s been four months since we last had the chance to watch some real live NBA basketball. But that long and painful wait is almost over, and in the very near future, we’ll get to see the Boston Celtics in action once again.
And even though they aren’t the favorites to win it all during the NBA’s bubble season in Orlando, there is reason to believe the Celtics are about to — no, not burst the bubble — but make some real noise.
The Celtics resume play with the third-best record in the East with eight seeding games before the playoffs. They put together a heck of a regular season and seemed poised to go on a deep postseason run before COVID-19 brought everything to a halt, and everyone on the team appears focused on making that a reality now that basketball is back.
They’ve left behind their families and the comfort of their own homes to play a game in what has become the epicenter of the pandemic in the United States. And to their credit, the Celtics are blocking out all the outside noise and focusing on one thing: Bringing a banner back to Boston.
Odds are against Boston winning a championship, with some pretty stacked teams also stuck under the dome in Orlando. But no one knows for sure how all of this is all going to play out, with a shroud of the unknown and uncertainty regarding just about every aspect of the bubble season. And if the Celtics play the way they did for large stretches of the regular season, they have a fighter’s chance at competing all the way until the end.
We’re all eagerly awaiting the return of Jayson Tatum’s highlight dunks, Marcus Smart’s smothering defense and Kemba Walker’s infectious smile. You can only spend so much time on NBA YouTube before your family strongly recommends seeking help. We’ve been thinking long and hard about the return of Celtics basketball, and here is what we’ll be looking forward to the most when things tip off once again on the 2019-20 season.
How Long Before Tatum Is Tatum Again
Remember how good Jayson Tatum was playing before the NBA’s stoppage? So. Damn. Good.
Then he spent four months hanging out with Deuce, and most of that time he did not have a basketball hoop at his disposal. Not ideal for a rising NBA superstar, but if anyone can overcome a few months of downtime it’s a 22-year-old stud-in-the-making.
Tatum has looked pretty lively down in Orlando (not to mention tanned) and will still probably destroy opposing defenses when games resume, but he may not do it with the furor of that ridiculous stretch in February. At least not right at the beginning. Just about everyone is going to need some time to get their game back; hopefully it won’t take too long for Tatum to regain his near-elite form.
JB Doing JB Things
In the shadow of Tatum’s breakout season was Jaylen Brown putting together a breakout season of his own. Brown is proving that he’s the real deal after inking a five-year, big money extension before the season, contributing as a two-way gold mine for the Celtics. In addition to his emphatic drives to the hoop, Brown has a reliable jumper and outside shot in his repertoire, both of which complement a solid defensive game that often finds Brown guarding the opposition’s best player.
And the layoff didn’t appear to have a negative effect on Brown, considering he was Boston’s best player during the team’s exhibition slate.
This was the big concern for Celtics fans just before a pandemic became the big concern for everyone. The hope was that a four-month break from NBA basketball would give Kemba’s left knee enough time to heal up, but when Walker started to miss practices in Orlando, those concerns continued to grow.
But Walker has ramped back up over the last week, including a nine-minute stint in Boston’s second exhibition game. Walker looked rusty, but he had plenty of giddy-up in his step and was able to create his own shot. Those were promising signs for one of the most important players on the roster.
In his nine years in Charlotte, Walker played a grand total of 11 playoff games. It’s a total he should surpass in a few months — unless his balky knee keeps Kemba Walker from being Kemba Walker.
If Kemba is back to his usual self, he will thrive with the spotlight shining on him and the Celtics. He knows that at the age of 30, he’s not the top dog that he once was — and he’s more than OK with that. He’s willing to take a back seat as the likes of Tatum and Brown continue their rise, and doesn’t care if his personal scoring totals take a dip for the better of the team. It’s that attitude that makes him such a great leader and calming force on the team.
But still, if he’s healthy, there’s that feeling that Walker is ready to have his postseason breakout, bringing back memories of his historic run with UConn nearly a decade ago. It’d be a shame if that doesn’t happen because of a lingering knee issue.
Hayward’s Contribution – And Departure
Hayward was having his best season in Boston, a valuable contributor on all fronts despite taking a backseat to the Jays and Kemba. He doesn’t need to dominate the ball to have an impact, though he can do that too if the situation calls for it. It really doesn’t take much for Hayward to get a on a roll, and when it’s going good, he’s the max player Boston signed roughly three years ago.
But Hayward’s mind — and Hayward himself — won’t be in Orlando for the entirety of the bubble season. He and his wife will welcome their fourth child — and first son — sometime in September, and Hayward is not going to miss that, meaning he’ll have to leave the Celtics and the bubble if Boston is still playing deep in the playoffs. He’s already said that he’s going home to Indiana to be with his wife and new baby boy when the time comes, meaning the Celtics could be without a valuable contributor for roughly a week.
Not ideal for Boston, but no one is going to fault Hayward for leaving to be with his wife and new baby — especially after spending two months away from them during a pandemic.
Boston’s depth 1-7 is pretty darn good. The starting five is solid with Walker, Brown, Hayward, Tatum and Daniel Theis, with Smart and Enes Kanter adding their own specialties off the bench. That depth is going to be important during the early parts of the restart as everyone knocks off the rust.
The rest of the bench, however, remains a concern for the C’s. They’re relying on rookie Grant Williams, Semi Ojeleye and Brad Wanamaker to give them some quality minutes when starters need a blow, and that could be an adventure. Each of those three can play well in spurts, but they can just as easily look completely lost. This is where adding another scorer at the deadline could have made a difference.
Smart’s Range (And Antibodies)
The NBA has reported two straight weeks of no positive tests inside its bubble. That’s great news, after a handful of players tested positive before arriving in Orlando.
One player who won’t be coming down with COVID is Smart (at least we don’t think he can get it again, but everything we think we know about this virus seems to change every few hours), after he caught the virus back in March. Imagine that: Marcus Smart, impervious to a virus gripping the nation, out there like a mad dog after nearly four months of not being able to hound anyone on defense.
Good luck with all of that, rest of the NBA.
Smart is going to be a mad man when play resumes. An absolute maniac. He may foul out in the first half of the first game back. And we’d be OK with that from an entertainment standpoint.
Though his defense will probably be ready to go when play resumes, it’ll be interesting to see where his shot is. Smart has turned himself into a pretty decent shooter over the last few years, and he hit 35 percent of his threes during the regular season. But we all know that he can fall into slumps from the floor, and those slumps can be painful to watch — and absolutely crush a Celtics run/game plan/playoff series.
One thing we know about Smart (other than the hard-nosed defense you can always count on): He’s going to put up those shot whether they’re falling or not.
Everyone knows the cliche about defense. And the league’s best defenses should be able to sharpen their claws early as offenses struggle to get back into form.
The Celtics just so happen to have one of the league’s best defenses. Boston ranked in the Top 5 in just about every defensive metric during the regular season, and it shouldn’t take long for them to get that defensive intensity back — if it takes any time at all.
The Celtics are focused on competing for a title in Orlando, and they know a focus on defense in the most important piece to that goal. Brown has been a defensive wiz this season, Daniel Theis has been as solid as they come, and Smart should get some love in the DPOY voting. But the biggest X-factor on that end of the floor is Tatum, who along with his offensive leap, has turned himself into a pretty solid defender as well. He was keeping players in front of him and disrupting passing lanes with his long arms, which will have to continue if Boston wants to reach its ultimate goal.
If the Celtics can get everything going on defense again, a trip to the NBA Finals is not an unrealistic expectation.
Taking Down The Giants
Heading into the bubble season, the Celtics sit atop the NBA’s “second tier” — a really good team that can win some games and a playoff series or two, but not a title contender. They’re in that group — which includes the likes of the Philadelphia 76ers, Miami Heat and Denver Nuggets — despite owning a top five offense and defense. The C’s are determined to prove that second tier moniker has been incorrectly placed upon them when play resumes.
But for now, they are below the Bucks, the Lakers, the Clippers and likely even the Raptors. The good news is the Celtics have beaten all of those teams. In fact, they picked up wins against each of the NBA’s top teams during the regular season, minus an 0-2 showing against the Houston Rockets. They split their two matchups with Milwaukee, went 2-1 against the Raptors, and 2-0 against the Miami Heat. Their 1-3 record against the 76ers is still slightly concerning, but we’ll see if Philly can hold itself together between now and a potential late-August matchup.
The Celtics proved during the season that they can beat the best teams, and now they have to beat the best teams when it counts the most under some really odd circumstances. The Celtics went down to Orlando with the mindset to bring a banner back with them, and though other teams may have a better shot, it’s not wise to count Boston out just yet.
Does Anyone Break?
It took only a few days for a player to break the bubble, with Kings center Richaun Holmes landing himself in quarantine for meeting a food delivery guy earlier this month. What a goof. Then, while out of the bubble for an excused absence, Clippers guard Lou Williams hit up a wing spot that also happens to be a strip club. Again, kind of a goof move.
The Celtics seem to be pretty in-tune with the NBA’s rules and regulations, and so far, they all seem pretty pleased with the setup in Orlando. But what are the odds someone breaks at some point? These are pro athletes used to having most of their days completely open and free to do whatever they’d like. Now they’re away from family and friends, with only each other and their fellow NBA brethren to pass the time. Oh, and lots of golf. Lots and lots of golf.
This Celtics group is a tight-knit squad, one that appears to generally like each other and spending time together. They’ve been hitting the links together and challenging each other to races in the pool. But as the days turn into weeks and the weeks into months, the temptation to spend some bubble-free time will only grow. How badly is someone going to want a burrito instead of the sack lunch provided? What about a quick visit with an… unsanctioned visitor? This is the NBA we’re talking about, and as Holmes showed, players have the occasional lapse in judgement.
The Celtics have the leadership and the determination to remain focused on basketball throughout the summer. Hopefully Grant Williams had brought enough board games to keep them all entertained.
Bonus: Who is the first player (or person) to lock Grant Williams in his room?
There will be no real fans in the stands, but they will be there virtually. They will generate some of the noise pumped into the gyms, along with the music that typically blasts during an NBA game.
Even with all of that, we’ll hopefully be able to hear what players are saying on the floor. Maybe not everything, but hopefully all the good stuff: Calling out plays, barking out assignments — stuff that will give fans a unique inside look into the game, one we aren’t always afforded with the pomp and circumstance of an NBA game. That’d be a nice bonus.
But what we’re really interested in is all the trash talk and those four-letter words that we know are being spewed, but get drowned out in the ambiance of the crowd. What are players barking at each other when the heat really turns up in the playoffs? What is Brad Stevens really saying when we are all just imagining him uttering “gee willikers.” And what are players and coaches alike saying to Ed Malloy and Tony Brothers when they make another terrible call in a key moment?
Let’s hope we get a little bit of clarity on all of that this summer.
Time Lord & The G League Guys
After a hip injury cost him much of the regular season, Robert Williams is healthy and ready to go. We’ve heard this before, but there’s a good chance Time Lord sees some action in the eight seeding games — and potentially some important minutes should someone need to take a two-week break at any point.
And under normal circumstances, two-way players like Tacko Fall and Tremont Waters wouldn’t be allowed to play in the playoffs. But these are not normal circumstances, so that duo will be allowed to play should Brad Stevens call their numbers. Fall was mostly used as a victory cigar during his time in the NBA, and Waters was busy earning Rookie of the Year honors in the G League.
But enjoy any playing time you see out of Williams, Tacko and Tre. All three players probably won’t see much time in the playoffs.