Celtics

What to make of the Celtics amid their midseason tailspin

What to make of the Celtics amid their midseason tailspin

MILWAUKEE — The Boston Celtics will arrive at the midway point of the 2019-20 season this weekend trying to pull themselves out of a tailspin that’s seen them drop five of their last seven games, including a pair of Eastern Conference showdowns with chief rivals Philadelphia and Milwaukee a week apart.

The Celtics have vacillated somewhere between enjoyable overachiever capable of pushing the East’s best to a maddening squad with fatal flaws that might prevent it from truly emerging in the conference. Sometimes they look like both in the same night.

Like on Thursday in Milwaukee when Boston dug itself a 27-point hole as the NBA-leading Bucks hit an absurd barrage of first-half 3-pointers. Just when it seemed fair to suggest that Boston’s early season success might have been the product on feasting on inferior competition, a Jaylen Brown-less Boston squad jumped on Kemba Walker’s back and nearly roared all the way back.

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As coach Brad Stevens likes to remind his team, you’re never as good as you think you are, you’re never as bad as you think you are, and you’re never far from either. The Celtics’ inability to field a fully healthy roster has clouded their overall potential and we’re left making bold proclamations off small samples of good and bad play.

Are the Celtics true contenders? Maybe, but the past couple weeks hasn’t helped their case. Boston is now 7-8 against teams over .500 and only two of those wins came on the road (both when an opponent was missing a key player). They whiffed with a chance to pounce on an Embiid-less Philly last week and then couldn’t capitalize on Giannis-less minutes after getting within single digits in the second half on Thursday night.

Do the Celtics need to make a move? Maybe, but it’d be a lot easier to judge if we could ever see all their puzzle pieces together. Boston’s bench play has been woeful at times and, for all the consternation about their lack of pure size, it sure feels like shooting is what they should be targeting. And yet it’s fair to wonder, if Brown plays on Thursday, and Marcus Smart shifts to his typical bench role, then maybe the bench production doesn’t look as meager.

Ultimately, bench pieces aren’t going to tip this thing one way or another. The Celtics are going to go as far as their five best players can carry them, as Stevens made clear after Thursday’s loss.

"We’re going to ride our best five, as we’ve talked about quite a bit, and then we just need everybody else to play a role around them,” said Stevens. "But we need those five to be awfully good.”

On this night, Walker was exceptional. On the same night that Kyrie Irving delivered one of his patented rants about roster flaws in Brooklyn, Walker challenged himself to be better after a disheartening loss to the Pistons. He responded with a 40-point, 11-rebound outburst in Milwaukee. As Stevens abridged, "Only reason we had a chance.”

The coach added, “It's not [Walker’s] responsibility to be responsible for everybody else’s energy but I’m glad that he accepts it. I’m glad that he wants that. He certainly brought it tonight. He was awfully special tonight.”

On the opposite end of the spectrum was Gordon Hayward, who has been on a bit of a roller coaster since returning from nerve pain in his foot on Christmas Day. Hayward missed nine of the 10 shots he took — including eight 3-pointers — while finishing with 7 points over 32:15.

“I thought we had some good looks, especially personally, I had some good looks. But we just didn’t make them,” said Hayward. “Have to be better next time.”

But that only accentuates Boston’s rather thin margin for error against the elite (and maybe the not-so elite, too). The team had been undefeated this season when playing without Brown but they really missed him on Thursday. The Celtics don’t have the sort of top-end talent that can win a game individually (though Walker sure as hell tried on Thursday).

A February 6 trade deadline looms. It’s hard to imagine the Celtics making a big-splash move but adding a bench piece — if for no other reason than the run of injuries this team continues to endure — remains something the team must consider. Maybe that’s using picks to help fetch a shooter, or maybe it’s just thumbing through the scrap heap for someone who can be a more steady eighth or ninth man. The youngsters on this team have had their moments but they’re also being asked to do a lot at young ages.

It was telling, though, Thursday when Boston cut its deficit to 8 and Antetokounmpo headed to the bench with just under five minutes to play in the third quarter. Boston should have capitalized but its sub lineups floundered and Milwaukee pushed its lead back up to 20 before Antetokounmpo returned at the end of the quarter. A second Boston run came up just short at the end of the game.

Stevens glowed about how the second half looked more like “Celtics basketball.” Smart insisted the team wouldn’t overreact to this rough patch.

"It’s the NBA. You can’t get discouraged off that,” said Smart. "We’ve played two back-to-back nights and stuff like that. You can’t let that discourage you. That’s part of it. We’re at the 40-game mark. It happens.”

Maybe he’s right. Still, watching this team on a daily basis, we yearn for a glimpse of this team when whole. But who knows if it’ll ever happen. Robert Williams could be a nice jolt for the center rotation if he’s able to come back after the All-Star break but that’s unlikely to alter the path of this team much.

No, the success of this team more likely hinges on Smart, Brown, Tatum, Hayward, and Walker.

“I think we’re still pretty good,” said Hayward. "I don’t think the team is down or anything like that. I think we realize we’ve got work to do and we get right back to it.”

The quest to figure out exactly what these Celtics are continues. They’re not as good as we though they were, they’re not as bad as some will make it seem now. But they’re never quite far from either.

Don't miss NBC Sports Boston's coverage of Suns-Celtics, which begin Saturday at 6:30 p.m. with Celtics Pregame Live, followed by tip-off at 7 p.m. You can also stream the game on the MyTeams App.

Celtics center Tacko Fall meets John Cena at Friday Night SmackDown

Celtics center Tacko Fall meets John Cena at Friday Night SmackDown

Tacko Fall has quickly become a household name despite playing very little in the NBA. The 7-foot-5 center for the Boston Celtics became a star in the Las Vegas Summer League and since that time, the star hasn't faded.

Everywhere Fall has gone, attention has followed. It was Tacko Time, all the time at NBA All-Star Weekend. And every time he checks into games, home or away, he gets a massive round of applause.

Fall has mostly been focusing on improving his game in hopes of signing a non two-way contract ahead of next NBA season but has humbly embraced his star status, too. And his modesty was on display when he met another celebrity on Friday night, professional wrestler John Cena.

LIVE stream the Celtics all season and get the latest news and analysis on all of your teams from NBC Sports Boston by downloading the My Teams App.

Fall met the WWE star at Friday Night SmackDown in Boston. Here's a clip of the two meeting, via the league's official Twitter account.

This is a really great moment for the two and it seems that they share a mutual admiration. And it was nice of Cena to take some time to meet Fall before the game.

Fall, for one, won't forget this moment. And he surely seems to think that his grandmother will be excited that he got a chance to meet Cena.

Fall is currently dealing with a toe injury and sat out his last G League game with the Maine Red Claws. With Robert Williams rejoining the Celtics, it seems likely that any minutes he gets at the NBA level down the stretch of the season will be late in games that are already decided. But nonetheless, it'll be an opportunity for him to continue to develop.

Don't miss NBC Sports Boston's coverage of Rockets-Celtics, which begins Saturday at 7:30 p.m. with Celtics Pregame Live. You can also stream on the MyTeams App.

Why Robert Williams is the Celtics' wild card

Why Robert Williams is the Celtics' wild card

BOSTON — It’s unfair to expect too much from Robert Williams when he returns to the Boston Celtics’ active roster Saturday night against the Houston Rockets, but Williams is undeniably a wild card for the Celtics and their hopes of title contention down the stretch of the 2019-20 season.

Williams, the 27th overall pick in the 2018 draft, has missed the last 35 games due to a sore left hip. The team shut him down for two moths starting in early December hoping to combat the lingering issue, then ramped him up for much of February.

A scan Thursday showed no degradation from the recent uptick in activity and coach Brad Stevens said Friday that Williams has been cleared to return to play again. The team formally listed him as probable against the Rockets.

LIVE stream the Celtics all season and get the latest news and analysis on all of your teams from NBC Sports Boston by downloading the My Teams App.

So what can the Celtics reasonably expect from Williams?

Stevens said Williams would be “very limited for the first couple of games.” Williams, who was only averaging 14.2 minutes per game in 19 appearances earlier in the year, will undoubted display some rust but his adrenaline should carry him early. Stevens said that energy was evident at Friday’s practice.

“He had a little extra bounce in his step today,” said Stevens. "You can tell, he’s been antsy to go for a while now, so we’re happy that he’s going to be able to be back.”

Added Stevens: "We’re excited, nobody moreso than Rob.”

Boston decision-makers have offered encouraging updates on Williams in recent weeks. Celtics president of basketball operations Danny Ainge had routinely noted that Williams looked spry in small-group work. Stevens said earlier this week that Williams was dunking “at 13 feet,” suggesting he still had his pre-injury explosion. Teammates gushed about the loud alley-oop dunks that Williams threw down after returning to full-team practice before the recent west coast trip.

Williams noted that, during his time away, he worked on being more disciplined. One of Williams’ biggest weaknesses early in his pro career has been leaving his feet and chasing blocks. Williams, who is averaging 1.2 blocks per game for his career, has pledged to be more selective when trying to swat shots.

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The Celtics, with their perpetual injury woes, have a need for depth. As good as starter Daniel Theis and backup Enes Kanter have been in tag-teaming the big-man minutes, Williams can provide a different look and verticality at the center position. Williams’ lob-catching potential will be a welcome addition to a bench that’s offered limiting scoring output, particularly recently with Kemba Walker sidelined and Marcus Smart elevated to a starting role.

Williams projects as part of Boston’s top 8 rotation, though his playing time could hinge on how effective Theis and Kanter are on certain nights. A team like the Rockets, with their micro-ball ways, might be exactly the sort of situation that Williams can help the Celtics (at least when he’s at full health).

Offensively, Williams’ passing will be a nice addition to the second unit, and he can facilitate from the high post when he’s not rim running. Williams doesn’t need shots and is content to score off lobs and putbacks. He does need to be more careful with the ball and avoid some of the careless turnovers that took away from his quality play early in the year.

A return Saturday gives Williams seven weeks to ramp back up before the playoffs arrive. He played sparingly a year ago (13 minutes in three appearances) but is at least familiar with playoff intensity, unlike the rookies at the end of Boston’s roster.

Williams isn’t going to radically alter the Celtics’ ceiling but he can help and maybe more than any buyout candidate might have. How appropriate, too, that a man nicknamed Time Lord is making his return on Leap Day.

Expectations should be low, but Williams can still be very impactful in a small role. There’s been glimpses of his potential already this season, like a loud performance in San Antonio in which he registered 11 points on perfect 5-of-5 shooting while adding seven rebounds and six blocks in 22 minutes during a lopsided Boston win.

The Celtics came into the season with big hopes for Williams. The injury has set him back. It’s unfair to expect too much from him the rest of the way, but he can still very much impact Boston’s quest to contend based on the team’s overall collection of talent and the unique lineups they can trot out.

Don't miss NBC Sports Boston's coverage of Rockets-Celtics, which begins Saturday at 7:30 p.m. with Celtics Pregame Live. You can also stream on the MyTeams App.