The Boston Celtics reached the quarter mark of the 2020-21 regular season with Saturday’s gut-punch loss to the rival Los Angeles Lakers.
The green have lost five of their last seven games. Kemba Walker turned in one of the worst shooting performances of his career and missed a game-winner. Offseason additions Tristan Thompson and Jeff Teague have struggled. There was concern after Marcus Smart went down with a gnarly looking calf injury with rookie Payton Pritchard already sidelined.
And yet the outlook for this team is incredibly rosy for two reasons in particular: Jayson Tatum and Jaylen Brown.
Go ahead and accuse us of chugging the green Kool-Aid, but nothing was as important to the championship hopes of this team as the continued ascension of Tatum and Brown. Even in Saturday’s loss, the Jays stood there throwing haymakers with maybe the league’s top duo in LeBron James and Anthony Davis and nearly stole a win.
It’s easy to get caught up in the nightly results and the Celtics certainly have a lot of work ahead to position themselves as legitimate title contenders. Their defense has to be better, they haven’t had a win over a playoff team in three weeks (though one week got wiped out by COVID-19 issues), and Danny Ainge needs to do some work to tighten up this roster.
But step back and the big picture is far more encouraging. The Celtics dodged a bullet with injuries to both Smart and Pritchard being far less severe than they looked. Boston is still going to have to navigate the next couple weeks without Smart — all while waiting for Pritchard to be healthy enough to get back on the court — and that’s asking a lot for Teague to hold the fort, especially considering his shot (particularly near the basket) has defied him after a scorching start.
But there’s an opportunity for others to fill the void and the early portion of the season was earmarked for development anyhow.
The bottom line is that, with the play of Tatum and Brown, Boston pried open its title window even earlier than expected and this year they’ve gone ahead and jammed a prop rod in there. The window is open for the next half decade but now it’s even more imperative the team finds the right pieces to put alongside the Jays.
Here’s the outlook for Quarter 2 for these Celtics:
KEMBA GETS COMFY, FINDS HIS SMILE
For all the positivity as Walker gushed about feeling pain free after his return, he had a rough week. Walker got pickpocketed in crunch time against the Spurs then missed 11 of the 12 shots he put up against the Lakers. He admitted in the aftermath that, "I'm not even a player like that to really get frustrated. I'm more smiling and I wasn't that tonight. I got into my own head.”
The Celtics don’t need Walker to carry the team the way he had to in Charlotte. What they do need is for Walker to identify when he can be the focal point, particularly in reserve-heavy lineups, and be ultra aggressive in those moments. The ball isn’t going to be in his hands as much as it used to be but he’s also going to see a lot more open looks when running with the Jays.
The Celtics have a minus-4.4 rating in the 38 minutes that Walker has been on the floor with Brown and Tatum so far this season (the Jays are plus-10.3 in the 266 minutes together without Kemba this year). Those numbers are going to improve, Walker just has to get comfortable again. But that signature smile rarely disappears for long.
CAN THOMPSON FIND HIS WAY?
Thompson, Boston’s offseason splurge, has had a rough start to his time in green. After being on the sidelines for nine months during the pandemic and bubble restart, Thompson tweaked a hamstring before training camp, then missed a week of time in COVID contact tracing. Despite his woeful defensive numbers, he’s adamant that better things are ahead.
“Nothing has changed. So just getting back in rhythm and just kind of getting used to this new new program that I'm part of,” said Thompson said. (Listen to the full interview in the latest Celtics Talk podcast). “I'm coming in as the new kid on the block with a team that's been around each other for two, three years … You want to be a player that's trending up towards the postseason.”
The Celtics are going to give Thompson every chance to find his way. His championship experience could be vital to a team trying to get over the hump and into the Finals. But he has to pick up some steam to close out the first half of the season and then really build upon that after the break.
WHICH YOUNG PLAYERS CAN BOSTON LEAN ON?
Robert Williams continues to give the Celtics good minutes. Pritchard impacted winning maybe more than any other high-volume rookie before getting injured. Aaron Nesmith has shown some encouraging glimpses for a wing-thin Celtics squad. Romeo Langford could give the team a boost when he’s healthy.
We said it repeatedly before the season tipped: The early part of the year was going to feature some bumps in the road but was critical for young player development. Even if just to generate some trade assets for Ainge to maneuver.
Some like Pritchard really asserted themselves. Others like Grant Williams haven’t forced the issue with their play. Stevens is giving everyone a chance to audition. The next few weeks is when separation has to start to occur.
AINGE NEEDS TO BE AGGRESSIVE
Here’s the most important part between now and the end of March: Ainge needs to infuse a bit of outside talent onto the roster. Armed with the $28.5 million trade exception generated from the Gordon Hayward deal, Ainge should be in the market for a shooting wing or a versatile 4 man who can play the sort of role that we’ve seen Daniel Theis thrust into at times with reserve groupings.
Think a P.J. Tucker type but someone a bit younger and on a longer-term deal given how hard it will be for Boston to add talent in future offseasons. Can you find a Maxi Kleber type on a team that will fade from contention? The Celtics need 3-point shooting and defensive versatility.
The Celtics could take a bigger swing — a Harrison Barnes type — but a desire to stay out of the luxury tax could complicate that pursuit. Regardless, with the title window open, it’s imperative the Celtics put as much talent around the Jays as possible. Maybe there’s smaller moves to fill cracks. (If Teague’s struggles persist, do you call Oklahoma City about George Hill?) The Celtics felt a body short last year and they can’t bank on health and development alone to ensure that’s different this year.
Ainge has always been judicious in how far he’s willing to extend for a player that will be maybe Boston’s fourth, fifth, or sixth option. But this team is positioned to truly compete and their rivals are not going to sit on their hands. It’s imperative Ainge seeks out deals that maximize the opportunity in front of this team.