Celtics

NBA season return: Breaking down the Celtics' final eight games in Orlando

NBA season return: Breaking down the Celtics' final eight games in Orlando

You knew when the NBA pushed the pause button on the season back in March that a return to action was going to be challenging for all teams.

For the Boston Celtics? 

It doesn’t really get much tougher than opening against the Milwaukee Bucks, owners of the best record in the NBA. 

The Celtics (43-21) will look to finish out the regular season on a strong note and go into the playoffs with some momentum as one of 22 teams taking up residence on the Disneyland campus in Orlando, Fla.

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Here’s a look at Boston’s remaining regular-season games, all of which can be seen on NBC Sports Boston:

Boston vs. Milwaukee, July 31

SEASON SERIES: 1-1

KEY MATCHUP: Giannis Antetokounmpo vs Anybody: It really doesn’t matter who or how many Boston Celtics are thrown out there to try and slow down Antetokounmpo. He’s going to get his, regardless. In the two matchups this season, Antetokounmpo was defended by 10 defenders in each game, but still managed to average 27 points, 15.5 rebounds and six assists in the two games

X-FACTOR: Jayson Tatum: He was one of the top 10 players in the NBA prior to the pandemic, so a return to form would bode well for the Celtics’ efforts towards a strong regular season finish and a deep postseason run. 

STORYLINE TO WATCH: Kemba Walker’s health. He was on the load management train when the season ended. So with more than four months since he played an organized game, Walker should feel quite spry once the games resume.

Boston vs. Portland, Aug. 2

SEASON SERIES: 1-0, Boston

KEY MATCHUP: Kemba Walker vs Damian Lillard: Neither played when these two squared off on Feb. 25, a 118-106 Celtics win. With nine all-star appearances between them, both come into this home stretch of the season with something extra to prove. For Walker, it’s a chance to close out the regular season with the most talented roster of teammates he has been with since coming into the NBA in 2011. For Lillard, this will be another top-notch matchup as he tries to lead the Blazers into what would be an improbable postseason push as one of the six teams on the outside of the playoff bubble, looking in. 

X-FACTOR: Jayson Tatum: When he faced the Blazers without Walker, Tatum was as dominant a scorer as we’ve seen him this season. He led all players with 36 points on an efficient 14-for-22 shooting, one of the many games after the All-Star break in which Tatum’s ascension into being more than just a good player, was on display for the world to see.

STORYLINE TO WATCH: The Blazers have been riddled with injuries most of this season, but the stoppage of play has allowed two of their top big men, Jusef Nurkic and Zach Collins, added time to heal. How the Celtics handle a much beefier Blazers front line compared to the one they saw back in February, will be worth keeping an eye on when these two meet.

Boston vs. Miami, Aug. 4

SEASON SERIES: 2-0, Boston

KEY MATCHUP: Jayson Tatum vs Jimmy Butler: While Tatum will certainly get some help (Jaylen Brown, Marcus Smart, Gordon Hayward) when it comes to defending Butler, his best defense may very well be his much-improved offense. Each goes about impacting the game offensively in different ways, but the one who wins out will likely be the key to their respective team’s chances of winning

X-FACTOR: Jaylen Brown: During their first meeting this season, Jaylen Brown went off for 31 points. He was just as big a problem for them in the second matchup, finishing that game with 25 points. His ability to continue defending at a good clip while scoring the way he did in the two previous meetings, will bode well for Boston’s chances at success.

STORYLINE TO WATCH: Shot-making for years has been an issue for the Heat, and it certainly played out that way in the two matchups against Boston. If the Celtics defense continues to keep Miami rolling along the brick-paving road that we saw in the first two matchups this season, this will be another solid victory for the Green Team. 

Boston vs. Brooklyn, Aug. 5

SEASON SERIES: 2-1, Brooklyn

KEY MATCHUP: Caris LeVert vs Kemba Walker: Rest assured, Kemba Walker and the rest of the Celtics have not forgotten LeVert dropping 51 points on them back in March. And while he was giving just about every Celtics player buckets, no one got the brunt of that more than Walker. Payback of some sort has to be on the minds of Walker and company.

X-FACTOR: Daniel Theis’ scoring and rebounding were major factors in Boston’s lone win over the Nets this season. In that game, he had a near double-double of 14 points and eight rebounds (four offensive). His activity around the glass was instrumental in the Celtics’ dominant performance rebounding the ball (see below).

STORYLINE TO WATCH: Rebounding is always something to keep close tabs on, obviously. But the contrast on the glass in Boston’s lone win over the Nets this season (+17 rebounding edge) compared to the two losses in which they were out-rebounded by a combined 22 boards, speaks volumes to how important that particular aspect of the game will be in determining the outcome when these two face off in Orlando.

Boston vs. Toronto, Aug. 7

SEASON SERIES: 2-1, Boston

KEY MATCHUP: Kemba Walker vs Kyle Lowry: These two perennial All-Stars in the East played some of their best games of the season against one another, and this final regular season matchup between the two shouldn’t disappoint. Lowry dropped 30 points on Walker and the Celtics in Toronto’s lone victory in December. So minimizing his impact will be key for another Celtics win.

X-FACTOR: Jayson Tatum and Jaylen Brown: They pose the kind of 1-2 scoring threat that the Raptors had trouble with to some extent in all three of their regular season matchups. In Boston’s first win over Toronto, they each had 25 points. And in the second matchup, a Celtics victory, they combined for 41 points, 15 rebounds and 10 assists 

STORYLINE TO WATCH: The Raptors have arguably the toughest remaining schedule of any team in the bubble, which gives the Celtics a legit shot at overtaking them for the No. 2 seed in the East. For Boston, winning this game not only secures the tie-breaker but brings them one step closer to not even needing it to move past Toronto in the standings. 

Boston vs. Orlando, Aug. 9

SEASON SERIES: 2-0, Boston

KEY MATCHUP: Daniel Theis vs Nikola Vucevic: While there may be others who garner the headlines when these two face off, Theis’ ability to hold his own against Vucevic was huge when these two faced off back in February. Vucevic had a strong game with 17 points, 12 rebounds and four assists. But Theis gave Boston good production as well before finishing with 16 points, six rebounds and four assists in the Boston win. 

X-FACTOR: Gordon Hayward: The Magic had matchup problems with Hayward in both of the regular season matchups. That allowed Hayward to finish with a pair of do-it-all kind of performances. In the first Celtics win, he had a double-double of 22 points and 14 rebounds with five assists. He followed that up in the next meeting with 23 points, seven boards and seven assists.

STORYLINE TO WATCH: The Magic are one of the last teams to get the 22-team invite. Combine their lack of success overall with their lack of success against the Celtics this season, and there’s the potential for Boston to come out a bit flat in this one. Playing with a necessary edge will be a factor in Boston continuing on its successful ways against Orlando.

Boston vs. Memphis, Aug. 11

SEASON SERIES: 1-0, Boston

KEY MATCHUP: Kemba Walker vs Ja Morant: When these two faced off earlier this season, neither played particularly well. But for Morant, it was arguably his worst game in the NBA as he scored just two points. Walker (8 points, 2-for-9 shooting) wasn’t much better. Both being healthy, look for a much better performance from both players in the bubble. 

X-FACTOR: Enes Kanter: Scoring. Rebounding. Those are the two things you know more times than not, you can count on getting from Kanter. Coming off the Celtics bench, he was able to deliver on both fronts against the Grizzlies during Boston’s 119-95 blowout win on Jan. 22. Kanter had a near double-double of 14 points and eight rebounds off the bench. 

STORYLINE TO WATCH: Memphis has been an underdog of sorts all year, so why should things be any different in the bubble? Beating Boston would not only go far in their efforts towards locking up a playoff spot, but it would be a huge confidence boost for a team that was thoroughly outplayed the last time they saw the Celtics. 

Boston vs. Washington, Aug. 13

SEASON SERIES: Tied 1-1

KEY MATCHUP:  Marcus Smart vs Ish Smith: Remember when it seemed every week there was a player having a career high scoring game against the Celtics? Washington’s 99-94 win over Boston on Jan. 6 was a breakout game for veteran playmaker Ish Smith who sliced up the Celtics backcourt for a career-high 27 points. Look for Smart to spend a considerable amount of time on Smith when these two teams face off for the last time this season. 

X-FACTOR: Bench play: Boston is the deeper team and that should come into play if the Celtics are to come away with a win that on paper at least, shouldn’t be too difficult. When Boston defeated Washington 140-133 on Nov. 13, they did so with 40 points coming off the bench. Getting their reserves involved early and often will go far in Boston closing out the rebooted regular season, with a win. 

STORYLINE TO WATCH: With this being the regular season finale and the Wizards most likely out of playoff contention at this point, will the Celtics rest core guys, limit their minutes or have them play close to their usual as a ramp-up for the playoffs? Regardless of whether the Celtics have their playoff spot locked up at this point, look for Brad Stevens to rest some of his veterans (Kemba Walker, Gordon Hayward, Enes Kanter) for this one which more likely than not, won’t have any impact on the team’s playoff position. 

Final week focus for Celtics fans: Grizzlies pick and the No. 6 seed

Final week focus for Celtics fans: Grizzlies pick and the No. 6 seed

The Boston Celtics have clinched the No. 3 seed in the Eastern Conference and their final two seeding games inside the bubble seem fairly perfunctory.

But there’s still plenty to be determined over what amounts to the final week of the NBA’s (not-so) regular season.

WHAT’S THE DEAL WITH THE GRIZZLIES PICK?

While Boston’s playoff seeding is locked in, the Grizzlies team they play on Tuesday evening is most certainly not.

Here’s the deal: The Western Conference will have a play-in game this weekend to determine the conference’s final playoff representative. The team with the eighth-best record in the West will play the team with the ninth-best record, but the No. 9 team must win twice in order to steal the final playoff spot. One win by the No. 8 team secures that spot for them.

Don't miss NBC Sports Boston's coverage of Celtics-Grizzlies, which begins Tuesday at 4 p.m. with Celtics Pregame Live followed by tip-off at 5 p.m. You can also stream the game on the MyTeams App.

The Grizzlies enter Tuesday clinging dearly to the No. 8 spot in the West but there were three other teams within one game in the Blazers, Spurs, and Suns. Memphis isn’t just trying to hold onto that prime No. 8 real estate to make the play-in easier, they’re trying to avoid getting bounced from the play-in all together.

Which is why Tuesday’s tilt means a whole bunch to Memphis. But the Celtics have some motivation of their own to try to knock the Grizzlies out of a playoff spot and it centers around the Grizzlies' first-round pick that Boston is in position to collect this offseason.

If Memphis sneaks into the playoffs, they’ll avoid the lottery and deliver a pick somewhere between spots 15-17, depending on whether their post-bubble record is better than Orlando and Brooklyn.

If the Grizzlies fall out of the playoffs, they’ll land in the lottery and almost certainly convey the No. 14 pick to Boston. There’s a 2.4 percent chance that pick could vault into the top 4, which would trigger Memphis’ protections and cause Memphis to instead deliver a 2021 unprotected first-round pick.

To put it simpler: The Celtics can better their potential draft spot by up to three positions if the Grizzlies don’t make the playoffs. The Memphis pick is set to be the best of Boston’s three potential first-round picks in the upcoming draft (they also have their own and a pick from Milwaukee).

WHO IS GOING TO GET THE SIXTH SEED IN THE EAST?

Boston’s spot is set but their first-round playoff opponent is still very much in the air.

The Heat and Pacers played the first of their two remaining head-to-head matchups Monday with Miami cruising to a 114-92 win and taking sole possession of the No. 4 seed. Indiana sits a half-game ahead of the No. 6 Sixers, who are the most likely first-round opponent for Boston. Appropriately, Philadelphia had a nearly 76 percent chance of meeting Boston, based on projections by ESPN’s Basketball Power Index.

But those numbers could shift, especially if Pacers can't top the Heat in their second meeting. A look at each team’s remaining schedule:

MIAMI: 8/12 vs. OKC, 8/14 vs. IND

INDIANA:  8/12 vs. HOU, 8/14 vs MIA

PHILADELPHIA: 8/11 vs. PHX, 8/12 vs. TOR, 8/14 vs HOU

Remember, some of those matchups might look more daunting than they really are if some of the NBA’s top seeds downshift over the final week of seeding games.

While the conversation surrounding the Celtics’ first-round opponent has often centered on who might be the easier out — with Philadelphia’s recent injury woes seemingly making the Sixers a more agreeable draw — remember, too, that there could be value in the 4-5 winner being able to push one of the top seeds. It might be in Boston’s best interest if Milwaukee had to play a team like, say, the Heat in Round 2 given their regular-season struggles against them.

WHAT ELSE CAN BOSTON TAKE FROM ITS FINAL TWO GAMES?

Celtics coach Brad Stevens said he will use the final two seeding games in order to ensure his team’s conditioning is adequate given the minimum three-day break the team will endure between Thursday’s matinee finale and the potential start of the playoffs next Monday. Still, we’d be surprised if Boston’s key rotation players log heavy minutes in Thursday’s game against the Wizards. 

A few things that Boston can still gather from these two games:

1) More minutes for the starting 5: A group that played only 188 minutes during the regular season can continue to build necessary continuity at the start and end of halves. With Kemba Walker’s minute restriction set to lift in the postseason, it will allow Boston’s core players to share the floor even more frequently and Stevens can continue to nail down his primary rotations. Daniel Theis did land on the injury report for the Memphis game but he’s probable with right foot soreness. And even if he can’t go it could given Stevens a better chance to experiment with his bigs including … 

2) Is it Timelord’s time? Second-year big man Robert Williams has put together consecutive quality outings against Toronto and Orlando. He’ll get two more games to build Stevens’ trust as a potential option off the bench. Kudos, too, to Enes Kanter, who was one of the more impactful players early in Boston's seeding games while the team shook rust, and has dealt with a reduced workload in recent games.

The Celtics essentially know what they’ve got in Kanter and Stevens seems to be using these games to figure out what he’s got with Williams. The split of postseason playing time for those players could be dictated by matchups. But Williams needs to continue to put his best foot forward this week to ensure Stevens is willing to lean on him in big-game situations.

3) Another audition for rookies: The Celtics played some of their best minutes of scrimmage play with Grant Williams at small-ball center but he’s struggled to consistently make perimeter shots in the seeding games and was a DNP against Orlando. We’re not ready to say that he’s out of the rotation — we can see Stevens leaning on him as much as Williams or Kanter in certain matchups — but as Semi Ojeleye fires away and makes 42.9 percent of his 3s over the past six games, the veteran is making a case to be that stout body that Stevens leans on when he needs a little extra muscle on the court.

Romeo Langford should also get another chance this week to show he’ll be ready to provide solid wing defense if called upon during the postseason. Every minute in a real game is an opportunity for Boston’s youngest players to make an impression and all of them should be motivated for the uptick they’ll see this week. Any floor time they get starting next week should almost certainly be in much small doses.

Celtics Talk Podcast: Banner 18 in the bubble? Celtics' title chances getting stronger as postseason nears | Listen & subscribe | Watch on YouTube

NBA Rumors: 76ers star Ben Simmons expected to miss rest of season

NBA Rumors: 76ers star Ben Simmons expected to miss rest of season

The Philadelphia 76ers' 2020 NBA title hopes have taken a major hit.

Sixers star Ben Simmons left the Orlando bubble to undergo surgery on his left knee after injuring it in Wednesday's game against the Washington Wizards. Now, it looks like his season is over.

Simmons had the surgery in Philadelphia to remove a loose body in the knee, and he'll stay there for rehab. According to ESPN's Adrian Wojnarowski, Simmons isn't expected to return to the bubble for the 76ers' playoff run.


Don't miss NBC Sports Boston's coverage of Celtics-Grizzlies, which begins Tuesday at 4 p.m. with Celtics Pregame Live followed by tip-off at 5 p.m. You can also stream the game on the MyTeams App.

That's obviously a huge blow to a Philly team that currently holds the No. 6 seed in the Eastern Conference. Without one of their most important players for the postseason, it'll be extremely difficult for them to gain any kind of momentum.

The news directly impacts the Boston Celtics, who are locked into the No. 3 seed in the East. As of Monday, the 76ers would be their first-round opponent. But Philadelphia still has to wrap the season up with seeding games against the Phoenix Suns, Toronto Raptors and Houston Rockets.

Simmons averaged 16.4 points, 8.0 assists, 7.8 rebounds, and 2.1 steals per game during the 2019-20 season.