What NBA's return-to-action plan means for the Celtics

What NBA's return-to-action plan means for the Celtics

When the NBA season was put on pause in March, the timing could not have been much better for the Boston Celtics. 

Wins were getting harder to come by (they had lost three of their last five), the jacuzzi-hot play of Jayson Tatum was starting to cool off some and Kemba Walker was headed towards a stretch of “strategic rest” days off because of knee soreness. 

And just like the rest of the NBA is fired up about the potential return to play reportedly as early as the end of late July, the Celtics are an eager bunch to restart the season as well. 

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And they should be for a number of reasons. 

First and foremost, there’s a very real chance that they can move up in the standings if the league adopts the reported return-to-play model which includes eight regular season games before the playoffs. 

Currently third in the East, the Celtics would begin the postseason against Philadelphia if the league went straight into the playoffs — an idea that hasn’t garnered a ton of support from owners or players. 

An eight-game slate of games would provide Boston with enough opportunities to potentially move ahead of Toronto and secure the No. 2 seed in the East. 

The way the standings look now, the potential for movement is great for many teams. 

Boston (43-21) trails the Raptors (46-18) by three games in the standings. Behind the Celtics you find the Heat (41-24) who are 2.5 games back.

The next closest teams to Boston beyond those two are Indiana and Philadelphia (both 39-26) who each trail Boston by 4.5 games. 

For the Celtics’ sake, moving up from their current draft position and avoiding a first-round matchup with Philadelphia would be the preferred path to take this postseason. 

The Sixers, one of the bigger disappointments this season, will feature a healthy Joel Embiid and Ben Simmons, making them a much tougher foe come playoff time. 

For the Celtics, the alternative if they move up would be a Brooklyn Nets team that’s expected to play this postseason without Kyrie Irving or Kevin Durant who have both been out recovering from injuries. 

There’s also a chance that Boston would face the Indiana Pacers in the first round if the C's remain as the Eastern Conference’s No. 3 seed which, similar to facing Philadelphia, would provide a tough first-round matchup. 

The reboot to the season also allows more time for the Celtics to adjust to what’s shaping up to be a new pecking order. 

While Walker is the team’s most proven, most decorated talent, there’s no escaping the inevitable rise of Tatum as the face of the franchise (if he’s not already there). 

As the season wore on, his ascension was undeniable. Tatum began the season as a player the Celtics were hoping to see blossom into a big-time talent with the departures of Irving (Brooklyn) and Al Horford (Philadelphia).

Following his first All-Star appearance in February, Tatum averaged 29.9 points, 7.9 rebounds and 3.1 assists while shooting 47.2 percent from the field and 46.8 percent on 3’s. His ability to pick up where he left off would go far in Boston’s quest to build off the successes they had this past season. 

As for Walker, he had missed some games and played limited minutes in others shortly before the season was paused thanks to knee soreness.

The extended downtime without games or practice should allow Walker to return to action revived and refreshed.

And him being healthy combined with Tatum’s improved play gives the Celtics a potent 1-2 punch as they inch closer to rebooting the system and in doing so, restarting their journey towards what they believe will be a deep postseason run. 

Celtics Talk Podcast: How much does a healthy Kemba Walker raise the C's ceiling?

Celtics Talk Podcast: How much does a healthy Kemba Walker raise the C's ceiling?

Boston Celtics fans should be encouraged by what they've seen from Kemba Walker through the first two games of the NBA restart.

The C's All-Star guard has been on a minutes restriction due to a nagging left knee injury, but he's made the most of his time on the court. In Friday night's opener vs. the Milwaukee Bucks, Walker dropped 16 points in 19 minutes. Then in Sunday's win over the Portland Trail Blazers, Walker scored 14 points in 22 minutes.

In other words, he looks healthy. And that's great news for a Celtics team that will need Walker to be 100 percent when they begin their road to the NBA Finals later this month.

Don't miss NBC Sports Boston's coverage of Celtics-Heat, which begins Tuesday at 5:30 p.m. with Celtics Pregame Live followed by tip-off at 6:30 p.m. You can also stream the game on the MyTeams App.

Just how much does a healthy Walker improve the Celtics' championship chances? Chris Forsberg, A. Sherrod Blakely, and Kyle Draper answered that question on a brand new episode of the Celtics Talk Podcast.

Celtics Talk Podcast: How much does a healthy Kemba Walker raise the Celtics’ ceiling? | Listen & subscribe | Watch on YouTube

Forsberg is encouraged by what he's seen out of Walker thus far and believes he'll need to be himself if the C's have any hope of making a deep postseason run.

"My biggest takeaway from the whole weekend was Kemba looks like the Kemba we saw at the start of the season, and there is no bigger development for the Boston Celtics," Forsberg said. "If they have any aspirations of doing anything, they need a healthy Kemba Walker. We've been saying this for weeks ... 

"He's flying around with a burst, a bounce that he hasn't had since probably the last calendar year, late December. I just think the team looks different because of it. The offense flows, teams can't double-team Tatum, it opens things up for Gordon Hayward and Jaylen Brown. I just think this is such a big piece of what they can do."

Blakely agreed with Forsberg's take and even took it a step further, stating Walker looks even better than he did earlier this season for the Celtics.

"To me, the big takeaway isn't just that Kemba looks like his old self, I think Kemba looks better than he did at the start of the season," Blakely said. "Because not only is he scoring at a level relative to his minutes that we're used to, but he's doing it efficiently.

"That's the one takeaway that has really jumped out to me, the fact that he's getting to his spots, he's knocking down shots that he should be knocking down, and he's doing it in a very precise, efficient matter which to me bodes well for going forward."

Draper took more of a cautiously optimistic approach, noting that we still have to see Walker get a full workload before we can breathe a sigh of relief.

"While I agree with everything you guys said, regarding Kemba, then what's the hold up then?" Draper asked. "If he looks good, if he's back to himself ... does he look good in five-minute spurts, or can he play 35 minutes and look good?

"I don't think any of it's a question of whether Kemba can look good in five minutes ...  We need Kemba to do that 30-plus minutes a night. That's the big question, right?"

Also discussed on the latest episode of the Celtics Talk Podcast: How will the C's manage Walker's minutes going forward? What are the biggest concerns through the first two games? And is there any danger of the Celtics falling to the No. 4 seed?

Check out the latest episode of the Celtics Talk Podcast on your favorite podcast app or watch it on YouTube below.

NBA playoff picture: No. 2 seed slipping away from Celtics as Raptors win again

NBA playoff picture: No. 2 seed slipping away from Celtics as Raptors win again

The chances of the Boston Celtics earning the Eastern Conference's No. 2 seed in the 2020 NBA playoffs are quickly becoming very slim.

The Toronto Raptors defeated the Miami Heat 107-103 in the NBA's Orlando bubble Monday afternoon. The victory increases Toronto's lead over Boston for the No. 2 seed to four games.

The East standings currently look like this:

1. Milwaukee Bucks: 54-13
2. Toronto Raptors: 48-18, 5.5 GB
3. Boston Celtics: 44-22, 9.5 GB
4. Miami Heat: 42-25, 12 GB
5. Indiana Pacers: 40-26, 13.5 GB
6. Philadelphia 76ers: 39-27, 14.5 GB
7. Orlando Magic: 32-35, 22 GB
8. Brooklyn Nets: 31-35, 22.5 GB
9. Washington Wizards: 24-42, 29.5 GB

Don't miss NBC Sports Boston's coverage of Celtics-Heat, which begins Tuesday at 5:30 p.m. with Celtics Pregame Live followed by tip-off at 6:30 p.m. You can also stream the game on the MyTeams App.

Both the Celtics and Raptors have six seeding games remaining, and they'll meet once head-to-head on Friday, Aug. 7. Not only do the Celtics need to win nearly all of their remaining games to have a chance to overtake the Raptors for the No. 2 seed, they also need Toronto to struggle and lose many of its remaining matchups. While it wouldn't be a huge surprise if the C's won the rest of their games, it definitely would be shocking if the Raptors collapsed over the next week. The Raptors have lost consecutive games only three times this season, and their longest losing streak was only three games.

Toronto already won its toughest seeding game of the restart -- an impressive 15-point victory over the Western Conference-leading Los Angeles Lakers on Saturday night.

Here's the Raptors' schedule to finish the seeding games:

Aug. 5 vs. Orlando Magic
Aug. 7 vs. Boston Celtics
Aug. 9 vs. Memphis Grizzlies
Aug. 10 vs. Milwaukee Bucks
Aug. 12 vs. Philadelphia 76ers
Aug. 14 vs. Denver Nuggets

The Miami Heat, even with Monday's loss to the Raptors, are still a threat to catch the Celtics for the No. 3 seed. Miami is 2.5 games behind Boston, and these teams will square off Tuesday night. A head-to-head victory for the Celtics would be a huge dent in the Heat's chances of grabbing the No. 3 seed. Miami has two tough games coming up against the C's and the Milwaukee Bucks, but its final four matchups all are very winnable.

Here's a look at the Heat's remaining schedule:

Aug. 4 vs. Boston Celtics
Aug. 6 vs. Milwaukee Bucks
Aug. 8 vs. Phoenix Suns
Aug. 10 vs. Indiana Pacers
Aug. 12 vs. Oklahoma City
Aug. 14 vs. Indiana Pacers

The real question for the Celtics right now, especially with them looking like a strong bet to finish as the No. 3 seed, is which team will they match up against in Round 1 of the playoffs. If the season ended today, Boston would play the Philadelphia 76ers in the No. 3 vs. No. 6 first-round series. The Sixers' first seeding game was a disaster as they allowed T.J. Warren to score a career-high 53 points in an Indiana Pacers win.

The most likely first-round opponents for the Celtics are the 76ers and Pacers. The Pacers would be an easier matchup given their injuries to key players, including All-Star forward Domantas Sabonis.