A nationally televised face-off between LeBron James’ Lakers and Jayson Tatum’s Celtics was one of the last great games of the pre-hiatus NBA season. While the Lakers are the talk of the Bubble as a presumptive title contender, the Celtics are at center stage yet again, highlighting the first full day of NBA action in nearly five months as they take on the Milwaukee Bucks on ESPN Friday evening.
Boston is as deep as ever, well-coached, and full of budding stars. Eight seeding games isn’t a very long runway, but for the Celtics to reclaim the momentum they had when they went toe to toe with Los Angeles back in late February, they’ll need third-year forward Jayson Tatum to pick up where he left off as one of the most versatile and efficient scorers in the league. If he can, the team’s dynamic defense and wide array of scoring talent makes them a good bet for another deep playoff run under Brad Stevens.
Robert Williams III
Friday, July 31 — 6:30 p.m. ET — vs. Milwaukee Bucks
Sunday, Aug. 2 — 3:30 p.m. ET — vs. Portland Trail Blazers
Tuesday, Aug. 4 — 6:30 p.m. ET — vs. Miami Heat
Wednesday, Aug. 5 — 9 p.m. ET — vs. Brooklyn Nets
Friday, Aug. 7 — 9 p.m. ET — vs. Toronto Raptors
Sunday, Aug. 9 — 5 p.m. ET — vs. Orlando Magic
Tuesday, Aug. 11 — 6:30 p.m. ET — vs. Memphis Grizzlies
Thursday, Aug. 13 — Time TBD — vs. Washington Wizards
1. Milwaukee Bucks: 53-12
2. Toronto Raptors: 46-18 (6.5)
3. Boston Celtics: 43-21 (9.5)
4. Miami Heat: 41-24 (12.0)
5. Indiana Pacers: 39-26 (14.0)
6. Philadelphia 76ers: 39-26 (14.0)
7. Brooklyn Nets: 30-34 (22.5)
8. Orlando Magic: 30-35 (23.0)
9. Washington Wizards: 24-40 (28.5)
WHAT DOES SUCCESS LOOK LIKE?
The Celtics should be aiming for the NBA Finals. They came close in 2018 when Tatum first matched James on the big stage, then faltered last year as Kyrie Irving took control in the first round against Milwaukee and orchestrated a humiliating five-game defeat at the hands of the Bucks. The next two seasons might be this core’s best chance at a title, so sitting within reach in the third seed means a Finals berth has to be the goal for 2020.
Tatum will be up for a contract extension after the season, while Brown is already locked in on a lucrative deal. Hayward can opt-out after 2020 or see his contract expire in the 2021 offseason. The Celtics know the group they currently have is championship-worthy, but with an expensive future, everyone should be locked in on a title chase this summer in Orlando.
Kemba Walker: This one comes down to health. In his first season with the Celtics, Walker was his usual self, albeit on a lower usage than in his best Charlotte years. Walker was able to bring the gravity and effectiveness as a three-level scoring guard to Stevens’ offense without dominating the ball as much as Irving or Isaiah Thomas. That meant he was able not only to create his own shots but find good looks for teammates, notching 4.9 “high-value assists” (think 3s and layups) per 75 possessions, according to The Basketball Index’s player profiles.
However, Walker only played in one of the team’s three scrimmages and has been nursing a knee injury since at least the All-Star break in mid-February. Walker has said he is “trending upwards,” but going on six months of discomfort, you’d hope Walker would be further along than simply trending in the right direction. With Walker at less than full strength, the Celtics struggled to score before the break. Even with Tatum’s brilliance and great two-way role players, nobody on the Celtics’ roster can replace Walker’s ability to spot up and play-make.
BIGGEST ON-COURT QUESTION
Who wins the one-on-one matchups? We think of Stevens’ Celtics teams as being fluid and beautiful, moving the ball side to side, in and out, until someone gets open for an easy 3. That hasn’t been the case this season. After finishing fifth in team assists per 100 possessions with Irving running the show and Tatum in a smaller role, this year’s Celtics fell to 24th in that metric, a signal that more of their scoring comes in isolation (and at the free-throw line). The case could be made that type of scoring translates easier to the playoffs, and certainly Tatum has always looked like a player who could buy a bucket when the game slows down and shrinks in the playoffs, but it’s not something Boston has proven yet in the postseason.
On the other end, individual defensive matchups will challenge them come playoff time. They don’t have a great answer for Giannis Antetokounmpo, nor Ben Simmons or Pascal Siakam. While Brown and Smart are two of the best perimeter defensive stoppers in the league, Boston lacks a bigger forward who can shut those types of guys down consistently. Tatum guarded James back in February, but asking him to handle a third of the Celtics’ offensive possessions and lock down All-NBA play-makers on the other end is a surefire way for him to be worn out by the final rounds of the playoffs. Without Al Horford (or even Aron Baynes), it will be imperative for Stevens to mix up coverages on the league’s elite jumbo scorers (hello, Mr. Ojeleye), and limit them enough to let the Celtics’ offense win games.