Celtics

If NBA season resumes, these are the biggest questions for the Celtics

If NBA season resumes, these are the biggest questions for the Celtics

We’ve been reluctant to even entertain the idea of the NBA resuming the 2019-20 season because of the many hurdles that seemingly exist to ensure it can be done in a safe manner.

But it’s also undeniable that — amid reports Tuesday that NBA owners and executives emerged positive about the league’s momentum towards a possible return after a Board of Governors call with commissioner Adam Silver — your mind naturally wanders to the possibility of basketball’s return.

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So let’s create a scenario where, after a three-month break in play, the NBA announces later this month that its season will resume and, after a short period for players to ramp up activities, the Celtics take the floor again with a chance to compete for a title.

Here are five storylines that intrigue me most about the back-to-basketball Celtics and their chances to truly contend in a resumed season:

1. How is Kemba Walker’s knee?

Walker, who celebrated his 30th birthday last week, battled left knee soreness starting in late January and missed 10 games in a six-week span. His absence was diminished by Jayson Tatum’s star turn but Walker simply was not the same All-Star player he was at the start of the year.

A three-month break would certainly afford Walker the opportunity to rest a balky knee but, remember, it’s not like the team has been actively able to help him treat and rehab that knee during this stay-at-home period. The question becomes if the downtime was enough to alleviate the lingering soreness and, maybe more importantly, how the knee responds to a quick ramp-up back to NBA action.

Boston’s hopes for playoff success would hinge heavy on having a full-strength Walker.

2. Can Jayson Tatum regain his momentum?

The freakout over Tatum’s lack of basketball activity during quarantine was a bit overblown. Danny Ainge downplayed it after playfully chiding Tatum on social media.

It’s unlikely that, even with limited basketball activities, Tatum would lose all of the magic that propelled him to All-Star status and beyond. But it’s also undeniable that Tatum’s momentum had snowballed just before the season got suspended and it’s fair to wonder if he can pick up at quite the level he left off.

Tatum was playing with an obvious confidence and swagger, all while displaying a killer instinct that was far less prevalent before his emergence. Tatum showed in that span what type of player he can be; now the challenge is showing that he can not only get back there, but continue to build.

3. How good can the Celtics be at full strength?

Boston played only eight games with its top seven healthy before the season was suspended.

After Enes Kanter hurt his leg in the season opener, Boston didn’t have its top dogs again until after Christmas. Only twice in February did it happen. So just how good can this team be when it has everyone upright?

For all the consternation about an inconsistent bench — something that tended to dominate the conversation before the season was suspended — it always felt like Boston’s potential to lean on its top players in a shortened playoff rotation could ease those depth concerns. Still unanswered: Just how good can this team be when it has its preferred starting unit and primary reserves?

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4. What can a healthy Robert Williams offer?

Full disclosure: we’re card-carrying members of the Robert Williams Fan Club. Maybe even the president.

For all the obvious strides he needs to make to fully harness his potential, we’re convinced that he can be a legitimate X-factor for this team. The Celtics simply don’t have another big man like Williams, a gravity-defying rim-runner whose skill set meshes particularly well with the shooting talent the team can deploy around him.

Williams missed nearly three full months and 37 games with a sore left hip before returning in early March. He logged four appearances before the season was suspended. Can six months of limited wear and tear position Williams for a sustained stretch where he can finally assert himself?

In the short term of a resumed season, a healthy Williams could give the team a jolt off the bench and allow Stevens to get creative with lineups. In the bigger picture, we’d like to see more Williams so the team can simply assess if he can be a rotation presence or if they need to further address their center spot.

5. Which rookie is ready to break through?

The back end of Boston’s roster is thin on experience and, after largely underwhelming regular-season results, it’s hard to envision Stevens having the confidence to lean heavily on any of the team’s rookies in the postseason.

The stoppage in play provided an opportunity for those players to evaluate their early NBA returns. Any erosion of depth could thrust a young player into key playoff minutes.

Can Grant Williams keep opponents honest with his shot so that Stevens can take advantage of his other skills? After injury starts and stops, can Romeo Langford more consistently show the flashes that made him a lottery pick? Can Carsen Edwards overcome his pro shooting woes to give an offensive spark?

The rookies need to be ready for the big stage.

2020 NBA Restart: How would Celtics fare in playoff series vs. Heat?

2020 NBA Restart: How would Celtics fare in playoff series vs. Heat?

Miami is always a tough opponent come playoff time, but the Boston Celtics have every reason to feel confident they would prevail if the two were to meet in the playoffs in Orlando. 

In their two regular season matchups, the Celtics won both by an average of 13.5 points. 

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Making the victories even more impressive was Boston playing without some top players, as Marcus Smart (illness) missed the Celtics’ 112-93 win at the TD Garden on Dec. 4 while Jayson Tatum (groin) and Enes Kanter (hip) were both sidelined for the rematch, a 109-101 Celtics win, in Miami on Jan. 28. 

In both wins, Jaylen Brown was the one player the Heat had no answer for containing. After dropping a season-high 31 points on Miami in the first matchup, Brown was just as dominant in the second meeting when he scored 25 points, only to be outshined by Gordon Hayward’s 29. 

For the Celtics, both wins came down to their ability to force Miami into the Jimmy Butler show while limiting the overall impact of those around him.

But the Heat team Boston could see in the playoffs will be better than the squad that the C's faced earlier in the season. Miami has been a notoriously bad three-point shooting team for years. But after the All-Star break, the Heat averaged 15.5 made threes per game, which was fifth-best in the league. And their 40.8 percent shooting on threes after the break was tops in the league. 

The Celtics' starting five has been strong all season, and will look to continue along that path if the two meet up in the playoffs.

For Miami to pull off the upset, look for the Heat’s bench to play a major role. Miami’s second unit averages 41.3 points per game which ranks seventh in the NBA. They would face a Boston squad that’s allowing a league-low 33.6 bench points per game. Part of that strong defense after the break has been Boston’s board work. After the break, they have a rebounding percentage of .510 which ranks ninth in the league, while the Heat’s .496 rebounding percentage ranks 20th. 

PREDICTIONS FOR CELTICS-HEAT PLAYOFF SERIES

A. Sherrod Blakely: Miami is a better team now than it was during either of Boston’s two regular season wins. But Jayson Tatum’s meteoric rise combined with a healthy Kemba Walker will be too much for the Jimmy Butler-led Heat.

Prediction: Celtics in 5 games

Chris Forsberg: The Heat look a little different than the team Boston toppled twice in the regular season and added veteran, playoff-tested experience in Andre Iguodala and Jae Crowder. While Jimmy Butler has a penchant for the big stage, he wasn’t able to get a loaded Philly roster out of the second round a year ago.

The task will be even more difficult here and Miami’s younger players will be challenged to maintain their regular-season production. If healthy, the Celtics have more pure talent overall and match up well against Miami’s small-ball ways.

Prediction: Celtics in 5 games

DJ Bean: We've seen Jimmy Butler's numbers drop in the postseason before, and while Bam Adebayo's a stud, they'd have the same problem virtually every team in the East will have: they just don't have the sheer number of stars Boston does. 

Prediction: Celtics in 5 or 6 games

Kara Lawson writes heartfelt tribute to Celtics after landing Duke job

Kara Lawson writes heartfelt tribute to Celtics after landing Duke job

Kara Lawson was only on the Celtics' coaching staff for one season, but it was clearly a special experience both for her and the team.

On Sunday, C's head coach Brad Stevens and some of the Celtics players both congratulated Lawson on her new job as head coach of the women's basketball team at Duke and described how much of an impact she made in her limited time in Boston.

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Marcus Smart was effusive in his praise for the former Olympic gold medalist, saying, "she became more than just my shooting coach, she became a longtime friend and somebody I know I can talk to if I ever need advice.”

On Wednesday morning, it was Lawson's turn to express her appreciation for the Celtics in an emotional social media post, writing, "These men have changed my life. I have loved my time with the Boston Celtics. Our players are authentic, intelligent, creative and passionate men. They motivated me every day to be my best for them."

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It’s been an emotional few days for me. And, while I couldn’t be more excited for the opportunity in front of me at Duke University, I would be remiss if I didn’t talk about the team I’m leaving behind. These men have changed my life. I have loved my time with the Boston Celtics. Our players are authentic, intelligent, creative and passionate men. They motivated me every day to be my best for them. They surprised me last night by all wearing @DukeWBB T-shirts for an incredible show of support before I head to Durham. I cried. They would probably laugh and tell you I’ve cried a lot these last few days but I will tell you having relationships with players that move you to those kinds of emotions is the most meaningful pursuit one can have as a coach. I love them and I will miss them.

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Seeing the entire C's contingent decked out in Duke women's basketball shirts makes you realize the genuine affection and appreciation the players built for Lawson in such a short time — and it's no surprise that Jayson Tatum is front and center in the picture as Lawson heads to Durham.

Enes Kanter, always a consistent presence on social media, summed up the photo with a perfect one-word caption: FAMILY.

With Lawson leaving the Orlando bubble, the Celtics are replacing her on the traveling coaching staff with Brandon Bailey, who is also in his first season as a Celtics assistant.