Kemba Walker eager to see what Celtics are capable of when healthy

Kemba Walker eager to see what Celtics are capable of when healthy

BOSTON — Kemba Walker, rejuvenated after a rare weekend away from the NBA grind, one in which he switched off all the morning alarms on his iPhone and savored the ability to sleep in, peered out at the court at the Auerbach Center earlier this week and pondered a reporter’s request for a state of the Celtics union.

“Man, we haven’t had our full roster yet. We just haven’t,” said Walker, shaking his head. “I can’t wait for it. It’s been unfortunate. But when we do … “

Walker trailed off and then a smile formed as he silently assessed the full potential of the 2019-20 Celtics.

“We have a really good team, man.”

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All around him, however, was bad health news. Marcus Smart’s infection had spread to both eyes, extending his already weeklong absence. The Celtics had just announced that big man Robert Williams would be out indefinitely due to a left hip bruise. Nearby, Vincent Poirier emerged from a post-practice X-ray that confirmed he’d need surgery to repair a fractured pinkie and would be sidelined at least a month.

When Brad Stevens was asked later about all the bad injury luck for his team, he shrugged it off while noting, "I hate to say this, but I think we’re used to it here.”

Yes, in Boston, “Next Man Up” has become a way of life. This season, the Celtics have utilized eight different starting lineups in 24 games and players have missed a total of 46 games to injury and illness. It’s been key players, too, with Gordon Hayward missing 13 games due to a hand fracture, Enes Kanter sitting out seven with a knee bruise, and Marcus Smart set to miss his fifth game of the year on Wednesday, the last four because of the infection. Things could have been worse, especially after the scary moment in Denver when Kemba Walker injured his neck

Through it all, the Celtics are 17-7, sit third in the crowded top of the East, and haven’t let their injury woes slow them much. Boston is fifth in the NBA in net rating behind only the Bucks, Lakers, Mavericks, and Clippers (while comfortably ahead of East rivals like Toronto, Philadelphia, Indiana, and Miami, who are all among the top 11 teams in the league in net rating). Boston is sixth in offensive rating and eighth in defensive rating. 

While its fan base spends much of its free time on the Trade Machine trying to strategize a deal to add another big man or bench help, the Celtics, internally, remain curious to simply see what this puzzle looks like when fully constructed.

A preferred first-5 lineup of Walker, Jaylen Brown, Hayward, Jayson Tatum, and Daniel Theis has started only six games together. A potential closing-time lineup with Smart in place of Theis has played a measly five minutes this season.

The good news for Boston is that its top-7 rotation could be intact by week’s end if Smart is healthy enough to get back from the eye infection. The Celtics might get a better idea of how things look with the ability to make Smart and Kanter early subs off the bench. The absence of Robert Williams could mean more time at the 5 for rookie Grant Williams, who has made the strongest case among rookies for a rotation role despite his shooting woes to start his pro career.

A pair of tough losses to Indiana and Philadelphia before Boston’s five-day break left a sour taste in the team’s mouth. Walker likes that the Celtics are still flying a bit under the radar, especially considering the team’s potential when closer to full strength.

"Early in the year, nobody expected us to even have this record. We’re playing well, man,” said Walker. "I think, at times, we have lapses but that happens. Hell, that goes with every team. Every team has it, then you correct it. We’re going to get stronger as the year goes, especially as guys get more healthy.”

Walker didn’t want to make any grand proclamations about this team’s potential — maybe not wanting to tempt the injury bug any further — but it’s clear he’s smitten by the talent around him and where this team is headed.

It would be fair to call Walker largely nonplussed as he offered his state of the Celtics, his trademark smile appearing often, but rarely talking above his typical whisper. But it’s clear how much fun he’s having with this group and how much winning means to him after all the lean years in Charlotte.

“When we win games, Kemba is one of the happiest guys in the locker room every time. He’s just screaming he loves winning,” said Theis. "I would say that’s especially because he’s the leader of the team. When he’s happy so much after winning games, everybody’s happy.”

Happiness around the Auerbach Center, especially after the slog that was last season, is not debatable. There’s a newfound joy that permeates every inch of Red’s House. But when people wish these Celtics health and happiness in calendar year 2020, these Celtics are eager for more of the latter.

"We just are really dynamic,” said Tatum. "We have a lot of guys that can do a lot of different things. I'm excited for everybody to get healthy. It's going to be fun.”

Part of that excitement surrounds the team’s potential closing-time lineup, a small-ball 5 featuring the team’s five best players — something Stevens hasn’t shied away from declaring while establishing a bit of a hierarchy on this year’s squad. That Walker-Smart-Brown-Hayward-Tatum 5-man lineup has logged a mere five minutes of playing time in two appearances but did post a solid plus-10 net rating in that tiny sample. It has the potential to be an offensive juggernaut and could be very good defensively if size doesn’t become an issue.

Stevens wasn’t sure if that 5 was his team’s best lineup, but you sure get the sense he’d like to find out.

"They could play together quite a bit. That's awfully small but I think that we do have to consider that,” said Stevens. "I do think we will see that once we get healthy some. I wouldn't say a lot. That would be a lot of stress on individuals if they have to guard up two or three positions each for a large amount of the game, but you certainly could see it at times.”

Maybe it’s the key to Boston’s championship hopes. Maybe it’s a lineup the team can’t often lean on.

The Celtics would just like a run of good health so they could figure out which it is.

Don't miss NBC Sports Boston's coverage of Celtics-Mavericks, which tips off Wednesday at 8:30 p.m. with Celtics Pregame Live, and then Kyle Draper, Brian Scalabrine and Kendrick Perkins have the call at 9:30 p.m. You can also stream the game on the MyTeams App.

WATCH: Jayson Tatum ribs Bam Adebayo after Heat star crashes interview

WATCH: Jayson Tatum ribs Bam Adebayo after Heat star crashes interview

Only in the NBA bubble could two budding stars battle on the court one moment then ham it up in the media room the next.

Celtics forward Jayson Tatum was speaking to reporters via video conference Tuesday night after Boston's 112-106 loss to Miami when Heat big man Bam Adebayo strode into the room for his own interview session.

Adebayo wasn't in a waiting mood, though, so he tried to distract Tatum with a few incredulous looks from the corner.

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Here's the entertaining scene, as captured by ESPN's Rachel Nichols in Orlando:

Props to Tatum for maintaining his focus as Adebayo tried to run interference. The two young stars then shared a playful exchange in which Tatum appeared to chide Adebayo for benefiting from some whistles. (The Heat big man scored 11 of his 21 points on free throws thanks to 18 free throw attempts, a game high.)

"You shot free throws like you won MVP or something," Tatum appeared to tell Adebayo.

Their banter was all in good nature: Tatum and Adebayo were teammates in the 2016 McDonald's All-American Game and entered the 2017 NBA Draft together, so they go way back. But Tatum still may have had a bitter taste in his mouth after picking up five fouls and getting hit with a technical in Tuesday's loss.

Both players are also in the running for the NBA's Most Improved Player Award amid career seasons; Adebayo is averaging a double-double (16.3 points, 10.5 rebounds) with 1.3 blocks per game for Miami, while Tatum is racking up 23.4 points and seven rebounds per game as he blossoms into an NBA star.

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NBA Restart: Celtics still waiting on any bench player to step up

NBA Restart: Celtics still waiting on any bench player to step up

We could sit here and scream about how poor Boston’s defense has been inside the bubble. The Celtics own a defensive rating of 117.9 after their first three seeding games, and only one team has a worse mark (the helter-skelter Sixers).

We could lament Boston’s lethargy after the team whiffed Tuesday with a chance to essentially lock up the No. 3 seed while playing a Jimmy Butler-less Miami Heat team that was on the second night of a back-to-back.

Boston hasn’t played with any sort of consistent energy in its three games, falling behind early against Milwaukee, coughing up a big lead against Portland, and trying to play catchup all night against Miami.

Don't miss NBC Sports Boston's coverage of Celtics-Nets, which begins Wednesday at 8 p.m. with Celtics Pregame Live followed by tip-off at 9 p.m. You can also stream the game on the MyTeams App.

But here’s one thought we couldn’t shake while watching Tuesday’s game: What a luxury it is for Miami to have a rookie like Tyler Herro on their bench. Herro chipped in 11 points over 22 minutes during the Heat’s 112-106 triumph.

With Marcus Smart in foul trouble — so much so that he fouled out late in the third quarter — Boston lacked a bench boost. Take away Enes Kanter’s 10 points and the Celtics’ reserve trio of Grant Williams, Brad Wanamaker, and Smart combined for 14 points on 4-of-18 shooting.

At one point during the second half, Celtics coach Brad Stevens dispatched Romeo Langford for his first seeding-game minutes but Langford turned in a scoreless 3 minutes, 44 seconds, in which he mostly blended into the scenery.

Herro, of course, went one spot ahead of Langford in the 2019 draft. There had been a buzz before draft night that the Celtics were fond of Herro and that he had impressed the team with his shooting in one of his workouts. There might have even been a few groans inside the Auerbach Center when Miami snagged the Kentucky product at No. 13.

The Celtics ultimately took Langford, who has no shortage of potential and might eventually be a better pro. But his rookie season got off to a slow start as he healed from hand surgery and then he dealt with a bunch of minor maladies that even limited how much floor time he got with the Maine Red Claws of the G-League.

Herro has now appeared in 50 games for Miami while shooting a robust 39 percent beyond the 3-point arc on 5.4 attempts per game. He wasn’t even Miami’s best rookie this season — that distinction goes to Kendrick Nunn — but Herro won Erik Spoelstra’s confidence and is now a key rotation piece while logging 26.9 minutes per game.

On Tuesday, Miami’s four-man bench combined for 43 points on 31 shots while each player logged at least 21 minutes of floor time. For Boston, Semi Ojeleye missed five of his six shots, including multiple open 3s. Smart finished 0-for-5 shooting.

Make no mistake, Boston will lean heavy on its core players when the playoffs arrive. When Kemba Walker is off his minute restriction, and combined with a hefty dose of Jayson Tatum, Jaylen Brown, and Gordon Hayward, that might leave only a small handful of minutes for reserves not named Smart.

Still, games like Tuesday night show how important it is to have players that can take the baton, even if it’s only on rare nights. None of Boston’s younger players have shown enough this year to earn Stevens’ unwavering trust.

Again, guys like Grant Williams and Langford could have bright futures. Maybe Carsen Edwards and Tremont Waters, too. That’s especially important for Boston because of how much money they have tied up long term in their core players.

But the fact of that matter is that, right now, none of Boston’s rookies have seized their opportunity, nor has 2018 first-round pick Robert Williams, who was only inserted late in Tuesday’s game to defend an inbounds attempt with his length and bounce.

Those players could get another chance to show what they’ve got on Wednesday when Boston plays a back-to-back against the Nets. With Walker set to rest his knee and Stevens unlikely to go too heavy on starter minutes in the team’s first (and only) bubble double, younger players will need to take advantage of whatever minutes come their way.

Herro won’t be the difference between a first-round upset and a first-round exit for Miami. But the Heat are well-positioned moving into the future because of the progress their youngest players made this season. It’s critical teams develop talent if they are going to commit most of their money to their top stars.

The Celtics are left waiting for their youngest players to show they are ready.

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