Celtics

Celtics

BOSTON — Kemba Walker missed his third straight game on Wednesday night but inactive would be an inaccurate word for his status.

Boston’s All-Star point guard repeatedly spilled onto the floor at TD Garden during a win over the Magic, whether it was to applaud a Brad Wanamaker steal/layup combination, to celebrate rookie Romeo Langford taking a charge, or to simply join his teammates’ deliriousness after Jaylen Brown’s fourth-quarter poster dunk.

When Jayson Tatum took over in the second half, en route to his sixth 30+ point night of the season, Walker was his biggest cheerleader. Walker popped off the bench to greet him Tatum as he swaggered to the bench after a timeout-inducing 3-pointer in a key run.

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If the Boston Celtics let the trade deadline pass with little more than a whimper Thursday, it will be mostly because they didn’t have the sort of tradable salaries that might have afforded the team a chance to make a bigger splash. But another large chunk of the team’s motivation for minimal alterations will be directly tied to the chemistry of this year’s team.

The 2019-20 Celtics enjoy each other’s company. A lot. On Sunday, they huddled in Atlanta to watch the Super Bowl together. They spent Thanksgiving at Walker’s house in New York, and dined together on Christmas Eve in Toronto. Sometimes it looks like the bench brigade is having more fun than anyone else inside TD Garden.

"What we’re trying to do this year is be more together,” said Celtics third-year forward Semi Ojeleye. “Said that from the start, and I think we’re well on our way there.”

 

Ojeleye voiced his displeasure when the Celtics seemed to splinter under the weight of expectations last year. As the team broke apart late last year, it was Ojeleye who begged them to come together.

It never happened. Boston rode a season-long roller coaster and all the good vibes from a first-round playoff sweep of a shorthanded Pacers squad was washed away when they endured a gentleman’s sweep at the hands of the Bucks in the Eastern Conference semifinals.

Noted Ojeleye: "I think it’s a test of your perseverance throughout the year. It’s easy to drop off, or get up for a big game, but when you can [come together] every single night, that can be special.”

The Celtics, perpetually shorthanded this season, won for the eighth time in nine tries on Wednesday night, this despite playing without Walker, Daniel Theis, or Marcus Smart. Pressed on the potential of this year’s squad, Ojeleye hesitated to offer any grand proclamations. But there’s one reason he’s particularly bullish on this squad.

"I think we have the commitment to each other to be a contender,” said Ojeleye. "That’s what you need. As far as the ball bouncing the right way and us playing our best at the right time, only God knows. But what I see in this team, the way we look at each other, the way we communicate, the way we want to win together — that’s what championships are won by.

"Everybody likes to say you’re a championship team. Until you get into that moment, you don’t know. I think everybody would say that the teams we had in the past were championship teams, so right now we’re just focused on the moment. We know if we look too far ahead and then it’ll get out of our grasp.”

Even bidding farewell to an end-of-the-bench piece could be tough for this Boston squad if  Ainge makes a minor move on Thursday. Players are genuinely invested in each other, especially all the rookies on the roster. But Ainge has admitted that the team probably has too many young players — and three more potential first-round picks in June’s draft — and it might be time to cash in on some of these assets.

The question is whether Ainge will find anything that’s enough of an upgrade to pounce on. If the deadline passes with no activity, Celtics players are confident in this team.

"I think we’re playing with so much confidence — confidence on both ends,” said Enes Kanter. “What we’re doing really good is just staying together. That’s very very important.  We’re building chemistry and it’s amazing.”

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Celtics coach Brad Stevens admitted that continuity isn’t really a thing for a team that’s so infrequently had all its horses. Boston would love a prolonged stretch with its top 8 or 9 healthy, something that might happen after the All-Star break, when Robert Williams is expected back on the floor. But watching Brown limp off in the final seconds Wednesday was a reminder of just how fleeting health has been for this team.

Even when healthy, these Celtics could use some more shooting. They could benefit from a bit more size, even if that’s not necessarily a center. Ainge has admitted he’s seeking bench help but cautions he won’t make a move just to make a move. There’s always the buyout market to peruse further down the road.

What the Celtics don’t lack is chemistry. As an organization, the Celtics learned a lot about the impact of being invested in each other last season. Boston players too often got caught up in individual agendas last year. This year, the joy is communal.

Yes, this year feels different. This year players seem invested in each other. They celebrate each other’s successes. And that starts with Walker. Who couldn’t be more supportive, even on nights when he’s stuck in a blazer.

The Celtics don’t want to mess up a good thing. They remain curious to see just how good they can be when their top guys are healthy.

Last year, they might have erred in not making a move. This year, the best thing for this team might be avoiding a big splash and simply riding the wave of good vibes that has existed all season long.

Don't miss NBC Sports Boston's coverage of the NBA trade deadline. This Thursday at 2:30 p.m., stream the 2020 NBA Trade Deadline Show on the MyTeams app and on NBCSportsBoston.com. Then at 7 p.m., tune into our Celtics Trade Deadline Special.