By Matthew Geagan, CBS Boston
BOSTON (CBS) — This is not the spot that the Celtics expected to be before the season tipped off. But based on how the Celtics played for large swaths of the season, they’re kind of lucky to be in this spot.READ MORE: Patriots Release Kicker Roberto Aguayo, Long Snapper Wes Farnsworth
That spot is, of course, the NBA Play-In tournament, the fake post-season slate to reach the real postseason. If the Celtics want another horrible “Earned Edition” jersey next season, they’re going to have to win one more game. They’d prefer to get that win out of the way Tuesday night when they host the 8-seeded Wizards, but the Celtics have one final safety net this year with a potential win-or-stay-out-of-the-playoffs game Thursday night, which would also be at the TD Garden.
That is really more than the Celtics deserve after a 36-36 regular season that saw them go 5-10 down the stretch. For a team that adamantly said over and over again that they were better than the play-in tournament, they certainly didn’t show it for most of the season. Minus a hot start all the way back in the waning days of 2020, the Celtics have been stuck in a general malaise of mediocrity, and even that is being a bit generous.
But it’s no use complaining about that flustering regular season. The challenge in front of the Celtics right now is one of the hottest teams still standing in the Washington Wizards. They were the Bizarro Celtics down the stretch, going 10-5 to close the season and get to where they currently are. Led by offensive explosions by Bradley Beal and the triple-double factory that is Russell Westbrook, the Wizards won 17 of their last 23 to go from a lottery team to a team that could potentially cause a ruckus in the playoffs.
“The thing I like about their team is they can be big and physical and play with great size, but they can go small and fast,” Celtics head coach Brad Stevens said of the team standing between the Celtics and a playoff spot. “They have a lot of ways to win and They’ve shown over the last 23 games with the stretch they’re on. It’s a really hot, a really good team. They’re a handful.”
If one thing was consistent about the Celtics this season, it was their inability to adapt. They kind of just rolled the ball out there and hoped that Jayson Tatum and Jaylen Brown would lead them to something good. Some nights it worked, others it did not. And now, Brown isn’t around to help this postseason, leaving it all on Tatum’s shoulders.READ MORE: Celtics Host Six Players For Pre-Draft Workout, Including Auburn's Sharife Cooper And Texas A&M's Jordan Hall
He is the budding superstar that can lead a team on a run, and this should be Tatum’s time to shine. He’s going up against his good pal in Beal, which should give him a little more oomph in his game. But it wouldn’t be wise for the Celtics to rely solely on Tatum with the season essentially on the line. It’s not that he can’t do it, but he shouldn’t have to do it all on his own.
Boston needs more out of Kemba Walker, who has looked much better as of late and is coming off a nice break, sitting the final two games of the regular season. He should be fresh and ready to go, if not for a long run then at least this one game. Evan Fournier needs to knock down his share of shots, something he was brought in to do at the deadline and has looked more comfortable doing since his return from COVID. And Marcus Smart needs to … just not do things that Marcus Smart has been doing lately. Be that fiery bulldog, but stay on the leash. Instead of barking at refs, bark at Westbrook and Beal. Hound them. Channel that Marcus Smart who drove the Wizards absolutely bananas in the 2017 postseason, and took no more than four shots from downtown. Boston needs that guy again, someone to break the defense out of its sleepwalking ways of the last three months.
The Celtics should have the upper hand in this matchup, but it certainly doesn’t feel that way. The Wizards are hot, and the Celtics remain the Celtics, an average team that just doesn’t seem like it has the will to win when it needs to win. Maybe their spot in the play-in is the wake-up call they’ve been ignoring all season, a complete illustration of their mediocre ways.
“It’s a great opportunity,” Walker said of the play-in tournament. “A chance for us to play against a team that is playing super well, we can challenge ourselves and get a win. We have to take it one game at a time and try to get a win against a really good team.”
Tuesday night is one of their last chances to prove that they deserve to be a playoff team. They shouldn’t even consider a Thursday night game against the Hornets or the Pacers a possibility.
But considering Tuesday night is not a win-or-go-home scenario, that message will probably be lost on them.MORE NEWS: WATCH: Tom Brady Once Again Is Not Afraid Of 'The Madden Curse'