BOSTON — Whenever the epitaph of the 2018-19 Boston Celtics is ultimately written, it ought to go something like this: “A team that never made anything easy on itself.”
The Celtics, their nauseating roller coaster play seemingly starting to fade into the rearview recently, entered Sunday playing some of their most encouraging ball of the season. A late-season starting lineup swap had restored a bit of the team’s defensive DNA (thanks in large part to a healthy Aron Baynes), while Gordon Hayward made such jarring strides in the aftermath of a concussion that he’d been universally dubbed Boston’s playoff X factor.
When the Indiana Pacers lost on Sunday to the Brooklyn Nets, it ensured Boston would have homecourt advantage in the first round of the East playoffs. That’s no small feat considering how long this team lingered in the No. 5 spot this season. It also afforded coach Brad Stevens an opportunity, if he desired, to rest his star players for up to a week in advance of the team’s first postseason game.
Stevens, maybe hoping to build off recent momentum with one more playoff-like joust against a hungry Orlando team, pledged to play his regulars while the Nets-Pacers outcome was still uncertain. Never one to wrap healthy players in bubble wrap — though certainly careful with existing bumps and bruises — Stevens likely saw a rest opportunity looming in Tuesday’s season finale and elected to go full throttle on Sunday.
It might have backfired. Jayson Tatum limped off in the first quarter with a previously existing shin injury that Stevens suggested he hadn’t been apprised of before Sunday’s game. Marcus Smart bruised his oblique in the third quarter and twice crumpled to the floor in pain, leaving his long-term status uncertain, though Stevens sounded optimistic it was simply a bruise and not a strain that might require a longer recovery.
Despite losing two starters, Stevens didn’t shy away from playing star talent late in Sunday’s game. He deployed a clearly invigorated Kyrie Irving, who nearly willed Boston back from a 14-point hole (this after Boston had coughed up its own 13-point lead). Stevens played it a bit safer with Al Horford, whose knee soreness has been a focus for much of the year.
It won’t seem as big of a deal if the injuries for Tatum and Smart are minor. The duo might have sat out Tuesday’s finale in Washington, anyhow. But if either misses time in the playoffs, then — yet again — the Celtics will have added obstacles on the path to building off last year’s playoff successes.
Here’s the positive spin: The Celtics have the necessary depth to overcome injuries, even to a key player like Smart. Both Jaylen Brown and Gordon Hayward have played to the sort of level that many have pitched their return to the starting lineup in recent weeks. Stevens has tinkered — moving Baynes onto that first group in place of Marcus Morris — but seems to recognize Smart’s two-way value to that first group.
The Celtics were able to navigate the first five games of last year’s playoff series without Smart, who was recovering from hand surgery. He eventually returned in Game 5 of a first-round matchup against the Bucks and immediately dove on the floor, sparking Boston to a series win in seven games.
Could Boston have avoided injuries by holding out key players on Sunday? Sure. But with the possibility of being off until this Sunday, Stevens probably thought he had a safety net in case of a minor blip.
Maybe they still do. But Celtics fans are forced to hold their breaths a bit in the interim.
Boston’s playoff path is clear now. The Celtics, by virtue of Sunday’s loss, ensured themselves the No. 4 seed in the East and will host the Indiana Pacers in Round 1 this weekend.
Two recent head-to-head victories suggest the Celtics are the more talented team. Indiana’s quietly been slipping backward since Victor Oladipo was lost for the season and, while admirable that they made Boston work to secure the 4, it had a lot to do with the Celtics’ own woes that they lingered in the top half of the East as long as they did.
Boston should have the top-end talent to get past the Pacers without Smart but clearly any missed games makes that series a bit more challenging.
And when you consider having to go on the road against the likes of the Bucks and Raptors — should top seeds win out — later in the postseason, it’s a tall task ahead for even a healthy team.
On Sunday morning, before his oblique bruise, Smart sat on a bench inside the Celtics’ practice facility and beamed with pride about the team’s recent turnaround. He had preached patience and oozed a quiet confidence last month, even as the Celtics huddled for their latest closed-door team meeting.
Smart remained bullish on Boston’s chances in part because of how it handled all the bumps in the road — even if much of those potholes were Boston’s own doing.
"I’m very proud of these guys,” Smart said Sunday morning before his injury. "We’ve been through a lot of adversity and we’ve stuck with it and we’ve kept battling. We’re finally getting a couple of games under our belt that we like and we’re feeling good about ourselves.
"Going into the playoffs, everybody knows, getting that rhythm going, once you get a rhythm, you’re hard to stop.”
Can the Celtics keep their rhythm going, particularly if Smart or Tatum is sidelined? That remains to be seen but what’s more certain is that these Celtics simply don’t like making things easy on themselves.
And the lingering question is whether it’ll catch up with them this season.
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