Will Kyrie and the young fellas hit their stride? Will Marcus Morris see the joy lurking within his teammates? Will we stop exaggerating the Boston Celtics chemistry issues and let the season play out, before drooling over Anthony Davis?
With 52 days until the NBA Playoffs, and 24 games left on the schedule, let’s take a look at the Celtics next four games. The Celtics bounced back from two deflating losses (Lakers and Clippers) to beat the Sixers in a tight one and the Pistons right before the break. In the absence of Kyrie Irving, the play-making of Gordon Hayward was a lovely sight to see. Hayward was close to flawless against the Sixers, going 8 of 11 and 6 of 7 from deep. Al Horford was a magician against Detroit, finishing with a +26 in 31 minutes. Boston took over in the 3rd, outscoring the Pistons 34–20. Thought Detroit is far from a high-quality team, it was nice to see the Celtics reverse the trend of noxious third quarters. Boston finished with 32 assists. Fluid ball movement will be a key to watch for over the next seven weeks as we head toward the playoffs.
Thursday February 21st
at Milwaukee Bucks (43–14, 1st in East)
The Bucks have been the most consistently dominant team in the NBA this year. And they quietly added a very good stretch forward in Nikola Mirotic in a deadline deal with the Pelicans. Mirotic was deadly in New Orleans’ four-game sweep of the Blazers in last year’s playoffs, draining 12 of 26 threes, and switching across both forward positions easily and cleaning up the defensive boards. He’ll be asked to play exactly the same role in Milwaukee, allowing the Bucks to go with a Point-Giannis lineup in which they’ll be longer than every opponent, creating mismatches all over. Mirotic has been nursing a calf injury for several weeks, but he’s likely about to make his debut.
The Bucks (43–14) have two games in the loss column over the Raptors for the East’s top seed. Giannis and Harden are clawing for pole position in the MVP race. Brad Stevens used Semi Ojeleye wisely against Milwaukee in last year’s playoffs. It’ll be interesting to see if Semi gets the call again tonight.
Saturday February 23rd
at Chicago Bulls (14–44, 13th in East)
Bring on the outright tank. The Bulls are in the odd position of having traded for a future stalwart (Otto Porter) and trying to finish at the bottom of the standings. They’re currently 3.5 games out of 30th-seed Phoenix, and 3 games behind the waiting-for-the-lottery Knicks. Chicago has three young front-court talents in Lauri Markannen, Wendell Carter Jr, and now Porter. Coach Jim Boylen will have to separate them in order to make sure they don’t accidentally win too many games heading down the stretch.
Tuesday February 26th
at Toronto Raptors (43–16, 2nd in East)
This will be the first meeting between the teams since Marc Gasol landed in Canada. Toronto’s grip on the 2nd seed seems safe, as they’re four games up in the loss column with 23 left. Gasol brings passing acumen and playoff grit to the Raptors. Many have discussed the potential ripple effects of playing time on Serge Ibaka, who is having a redemptive year, shooting 53% overall on a steady diet of long-range 2s. Ibaka doesn’t quite have the range to step beyond the arc (26%) which might limit his playoff minutes if Gasol is able to defend the way he used to.
Another aspect to watch is the continuity when Kawhi is on the court. The offense hums with Lowry and Siakam playmaking when Kawhi sits, but Kawhi’s steady, 1-on-1 dominance will be desperately needed in the playoffs. Nick Nurse has to balance the two offenses, while integrating Gasol’s passing skills.
If Boston has any hope of capturing the 2nd seed, they have to start by taking this game.
Wednesday February 27th
vs Portland Trail Blazers (34–23, 4th in West)
The Blazers just won’t go away. They’re currently clinging to 4th in the crowded West, one game ahead of the Rockets and two ahead of the Jazz and Spurs. The difference between finishing 4th and 7th would currently mean the difference between facing the Nuggets (2nd) and the Rockets (5th). In other words, not that big a deal. Every Western Conference team is simply hoping to avoid the 8th spot, which would mean a match-up with the top seed, occupied by…as always in recent memory…the Warriors.
Portland’s 5th-ranked offense hums along with Damian Lillard and C.J. McCollum. Giant Jusuf Nurkic and his 3.5 offensive rebounds per game will be a nuisance for the glass-vulnerable Celtics. Nurkic’ screen-setting has unleashed Lillard and McCollum even more than they’d previously been unleashed. Young Jake Layman has been improving as the year has gone on. He’s been warming from deep in his last eight games at 45%.
Old friend Evan Turner continues to play his old-man, little of everything game. New acquisition Rodney Hood is the deep threat that Portland will need if they’re hoping to advance in the playoffs.
Predictions (not wise but I can’t help it):
Bucks 110, Celtics 106
Celtics 118, Bulls 99
Celtics 104, Raptors 102
Celtics 113, Blazers 110