BOSTON – We are in the final week of the regular season and the Boston Celtics are in unfamiliar terrain.
They have three games remaining, none of which will have any bearing on what their playoff seeding will be.
Toronto locked up the top seed in the East, with Boston securing the next best thing as the Eastern Conference’s No. 2 seed.
Playing games this time of year with no playoff implications?
“Weird” is how Brad Stevens describe before adding, “yeah. I mean it’s strange.”
It may create some unusual, seldom-seen lineups, to test some of that stuff out now is a blessing for a Celtics franchise that has been dealing with significant injuries to key players all season.
It began with Gordon Hayward’s dislocated left ankle injury just five minutes into the season, and included most recently Kyrie Irving undergoing season-ending surgery on his left knee to address an infection.
So for Boston, bench play becomes an even bigger deal than usual.
“It always is, playoffs or regular season,” Boston’s Shane Larkin told NBC Sports Boston. “But with all the guys we have out, it’ll be huge for us. It’s an opportunity for the next man to step up, something we’ve been doing all season.”
Here are five takeaways from Boston’s 112-106 loss to the Atlanta Hawks.
BIRD READY TO SOAR
People unfamiliar with Jabari Bird don’t realize coming out of high school, he was a top-20 prospect nationally. But injuries more than anything else, made him someone high on potential but limited when it came to actual production at Cal. So what we’re seeing now is a healthy Jabari Bird who has been impressive each of the last two games, prompting some to wonder if the Celtics will try and find a way to keep Bird, signed to a two-way contract, around for a spot on the team’s playoff roster. Two-way players aren’t eligible for the playoffs but teams can sign them to a regular NBA contract if they have a roster spot. The Celtics don’t have one now, but may seriously consider waiving a player (Abdel Nader?) to create room to sign Bird.
BACKUP POINT GUARD?
Injuries and illnesses have weakened the Celtics backcourt this season, putting even more pressure on them getting whoever their backup point guard is, quality reps. It looks like it’ll be Shane Larkin who is gradually getting back to playing after missing a couple games with flu-like symptoms that were bad enough to where he had to be hospitalized. In the loss to Atlanta, Larkin was just 2-for-9 shooting with six points but he dished out seven assists with just one turnover.
CALLING AGGRESSIVE AL
Al Horford knew he was going to play limited minutes on Sunday. And to his credit he made the most of them to finish with 16 points, seven rebounds and four assists in just under 27 minutes. He was more assertive in looking for his own shot, which was a good sign to see with the playoffs so close.
MOOSE ON THE LOOSE
Greg Monroe is playing some of his best basketball of the season, and he’s doing at the perfect time. In Boston’s last three games, Monroe has averaged 17.7 points, seven rebounds and 5.7 assists while shooting 72 percent (19-for-25) from the field. Against the Hawks he had 17 points on 7-for-8 shooting.
POINTS OFF TURNOVERS
This is one of those categories you worry about going into the playoffs with lots of new faces unfamiliar with the pressure of the playoffs, and the poise required to survive. Boston averages 15.4 points off turnovers while rendering an identical figure in points allowed off of turnovers. But against the Hawks, Atlanta got 24 points off of Boston’s miscues while the Celtics could only recover 15 points off of Atlanta turnovers. And while it would be easy to dismiss the numbers based on Boston sitting all but one starter (Aron Baynes) in the fourth, remember this: Boston turned the ball over four times in the fourth for eight points. So for the first three quarters, Boston had turned the ball over eight times for 16 points which is the same turnover-to-points allowed ratio we saw in the fourth.