A two-game losing streak hardly qualifies as panic time for the Boston Celtics but it does equate to about as much turbulence as the team has encountered early in the 2020-21 season.
There are reasons to be optimistic as Kemba Walker's minute restriction loosens and Jayson Tatum prepares to return after a bout with COVID-19. Getting to see this team at closer to full health could cure a lot of what has ailed individual players.
But as the Celtics prepare for a second joust with Joel Embiid and the Sixers, here are three players that can also help Boston by elevating their play moving forward:
Not only is Thompson learning a new playbook and getting familiarized with new teammates but he’s doing so in a season that had virtually no training camp and limited practice time. What’s more, the Celtics might have complicated matters with a penchant for clunky two-big lineups out of the gates.
Regardless, the Celtics splurged to acquire Thompson this offseason with hopes of adding a veteran backline defender who could control the glass and make things difficult on the East’s best bigs. The NBA’s defensive tracking data has Thompson’s opponents shooting 57.5 percent this season -- or a whopping 10.7 percent higher than their expected field goal percentage. Among the 77 big men defending at least 5 shots per game, Thompson ranks 75th in field goal differential percentage.
Thompson's defensive struggles are in the spotlight a bit more as the team navigates this double dip with the 76ers. The NBA’s tracking had Joel Embiid scoring 23 points on 7-of-7 shooting with 10 free throws generated against Thompson on Wednesday. After one sequence, Embiid gestured suggesting Thompson was too small to defend him.
There are encouraging numbers for Thompson this year. He was solid against Indiana’s Domantas Sabonis (11 points on 4-of-9 shooting over 45.9 possession defended) and Bam Adebayo (3 points on 0-for-2 shooting over 14 possessions defended).
Still, the Celtics have a defensive rating of 111.5 while Thompson is on the court and their rebound percentage is 49.8 percent. He did have to sit out a week while in contact tracing so it’s been hard for him to really settle in with the Celtics. But those defensive numbers gotta be better when Thompson is on the floor and the Celtics have to do a better job controlling the glass when he’s out there.
We might be nitpicking a bit here. Teague is shooting 47.4 percent beyond the 3-point arc and ranks third on the team in net rating at a glossy plus-10.9 points per 100 possessions. Teague helped fill the void as Walker ramped up to his return and, considering the low price to acquire the veteran this offseason, it would seem like a steal for the production the team has gotten.
The flip side is that Teague is shooting just 33.3 percent overall from the floor and, despite the team’s glistening defensive rating during his court time, his defensive limitations are accentuated by the fact that Boston as a whole has routinely offered little resistance from guards trying to get into the paint.
The return of Walker will put a squeeze on backup guard minutes and rookie Payton Pritchard has made a strong early case for consistent time. Teague needs to use that as motivation to play at max effort during his minutes and show how his veteran experience can aid this team. When his shot isn’t falling, he needs to find ways to help the team as a facilitator.
For Williams, it might be as simple as finding a way to reclaim a little bit of that bubble 3-point magic. He is shooting just 33.3 percent beyond the arc early in his sophomore season -- this after hitting a blistering 58.8 percent of his playoff 3s after the restart.
While there are certain matchups that have given him trouble, Williams’ overall defensive numbers have been solid. NBA tracking has him holding opponents to 41.1 percent shooting, or 6.1 percent below those players' expected mark. That’s the second best number on the team among regulars behind only Marcus Smart (minus-7.2 percent differential). Boston’s defensive rating is a solid 106.6 with Williams on the court. Alas, the offensive rating with Williams is a meager 104.6.