The Boston Celtics kick off the post-All-Star portion of their schedule Thursday night in Indiana. The final push features 23 games in 46 nights with Boston looking to keep its hold on the best record in basketball.
What else will be watching over the final quarter of the regular season? Here are the biggest storylines until the playoffs arrive:
A stretch at full health?
The Celtics' preferred starting five of Marcus Smart, Jaylen Brown, Jayson Tatum, Al Horford, and Robert Williams III has logged a mere 29 minutes together this season. That includes just one start together (January 19 vs. the Warriors). Thursday’s visit to Indiana could double that total with only rehabbing Danilo Gallinari appearing on the team’s injury report coming out of the break.
Boston’s next five games all come with a day of rest in between, meaning there’s a real chance the Celtics could finally get an extended look at a healthy top eight (knock on every wooden object in sight) with Derrick White, Malcolm Brogdon, and Grant Williams headlining the bench group.
In any other season, we might suggest it’s imperative for Boston to get a longer look at its starting five. Alas, even with underwhelming numbers in its tiny sample size this season, it feels like Boston’s preferred five will be just fine so long as everyone is upright when the playoffs start.
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Of course, it would be nice if they could show it over a string of games. That five-man group was a wrecking ball over the second half of the 2021-22 regular season and launched Boston into the playoffs.
Still, even if that group only gets, say, 100 minutes together before the end of the season -- and four remaining back-to-backs will limit the total number of times we should even see that five together -- you still feel pretty confident given just how good that quintet was at the end of last season.
Jaylen Brown's push for All-NBA
The immediate question after the restart is whether a masked Jaylen Brown can pick up where he left off before suffering a friendly-fire facial fracture that cost him four games before the All-Star break.
Will the injury and protective gear take away any of Brown’s typical aggressiveness in attacking the basket? Will the facial covering annoy him the way it has many others?
Here’s why it matters even more than Boston’s push for seeding: While everybody on the Celtics is pulling towards a common goal of raising an 18th banner, Brown would become super-max eligible if he lands one of 15 All-NBA slots.
Boston’s team success, combined with Brown’s scoring uptick this season, has put him in the mix for that nod. The Celtics can aid that cause by maintaining the best record in basketball. But Brown could further entice voters with a loud finish to the season.
The Celtics being able to lock up one of their pillars and give even more security to the core of this team could take a lot of stress out of upcoming offseasons and further allow the team to focus on the ultimate goal.
Bench in focus: Is eight enough?
While much of the focus with a healthy roster will fall on the starting five, we’re likewise intrigued to see who coach Joe Mazzulla leans on off the bench when the team is at full strength.
Brogdon is the betting favorite for Sixth Man of the Year and White is still the reigning Eastern Conference Player of the Week after carrying the Celtics into the All-Star break despite his own bumps, bruises, and ruptured eardrums. Those two are going to a play a lot in the postseason and we suspect Grant Williams will do the same.
Saturday’s showdown with Philadelphia might tell us just how deep Mazzulla is willing to go in a playoff-caliber matchup. Does Mazzulla keep carving out spot minutes for Sam Hauser given how he found his shot right before the break? How much does deadline addition Mike Muscala play in instances where Boston isn’t resting one of its starting bigs? Does anyone else get a consistent call for a team that has had to lean on its depth given injuries before the break?
We might be even more intrigued by the bench rotation given the starting five is such a known commodity when healthy.
Monitoring the Jays' minutes / Filling the 15th roster spot
Before the addition of Muscala -- and with Tatum and Brown enduring hefty early season workloads -- we routinely suggested the Celtics should consider adding a big wing to help pace their stars to the finish line of the season. While we’d still like to see Mazzulla limit the amount of 40-minute nights for that duo moving forward, we’re not quite as adamant that the team needs to add another body.
Boston has shown that it can go small and lean heavy on its guard depth to cover perimeter minutes. The addition of Muscala allows the team different ways to stay big even if Tatum and Brown get extra rest.
So the Celtics can continue to ponder potential buyout options, but if players like Will Barton -- and the many others cut free before him -- don't want to come here because of limited available opportunity, it’s not the end of the world.
Should the Celtics target Will Barton on NBA buyout market?
Boston can just as easily fill out the roster by rewarding someone off the Maine roster, or add any available good-chemistry guy who's left in the free-agent bin.
Ultimately, any player added is unlikely to impact the team’s title quest. Yes, every bit of depth helps, especially a team with injury history, but there’s a balance to adding to the team at this point.
What’s more, Payton Pritchard deserves any scrap minutes more than any new addition.
Circle March 30 on your calendars
We’re tempted to suggest that seeding doesn’t matter quite as much as it did last season. Alas, Boston having homecourt in Game 7 of its Eastern Conference semifinal series against the Bucks sure felt important.
The Celtics ought to seek out every advantage they can to ease their playoff path. Which means that a March 30 visit to Milwaukee could have major postseason implications -- especially since it will serve as the head-to-head tie-breaker between the two teams.
NBA playoff picture: Celtics, Bucks in a tight race for No. 1 seed
There simply isn’t a team lurking in the play-in spots that seems as prickly as the Nets did a year ago. Regardless of how the seeding shakes out, the Celtics should be heavy favorites in Round 1 and then would draw a team like Philadelphia or Cleveland in Round 2 (assuming higher seeds advance).
A rematch with the Bucks in the East Finals sometimes feels inevitable, but nothing is guaranteed in the postseason.
Locked-in Joe Mazzulla
First he kicked the bubble gum to increase his focus, and now Mazzulla has the security of a contract extension after ditching the interim title over the All-Star break.
We’re guessing it won’t change Mazzulla much. Even if most of his energy has been focused on the team’s quest for a title, it’s only natural to ponder the future. The security of the head coach title should eliminate any potential distraction.
Mazzulla guided this team through what could have been a very bumpy start to the season, earned the trust of his players, and has built the best record in basketball despite all the team’s health woes.
A bigger test awaits in the postseason where coaches tend to distinguish themselves. Can Mazzulla take the lessons learned and apply them on a stage where every decision is magnified, particularly while competing against coaches who have much more experience in those situations?
Mazzulla ought to be Coach of the Year with a strong Boston finish to the regular season.
The miscellaneous items
- Tatum has faded a bit from the MVP race but it will still be interesting to see where he ultimately slots. A strong second half helped him shuffle up to sixth in voting last year. There’s a chance he could be among the top three this year.
- The Celtics don’t have to worry about anyone out West until June -- but given all the deadline/buyout overhauls in that conference, it will be mighty intriguing to see who distinguishes themselves over the next few months.
- The Hawks have a coaching vacancy and they won’t be the only team with one, particularly when the regular season ends on April 9. Will former coach Ime Udoka land any of the jobs that become available? Will that add a storyline that players are forced to address when their focus is on the playoff run ahead?
- There are two games versus Utah in a two-week span. The Celtics will go up against former assistant Will Hardy for the first time on March 18. Danny Ainge gets to see the nucleus he crafted up close again.