The Celtics open 2020-21 with a gauntlet tour of the Eastern Conference’s upper tier.
Tonight’s season opener against Milwaukee — the best regular season team in the conference over the last two seasons — will be followed by Brooklyn on Christmas Day and two games in Indianapolis. Based on their brief preseason experience, they could easily get off to an 0-4 start against that kind of competition.
“We just got beat by 30 in our last preseason game,” Brad Stevens said of last Friday’s flat encounter with Brooklyn.
“I’m just worried about tomorrow night’s first few minutes,” said the Celtics coach. “When you coach in Boston and you play in Boston, there’s one goal that never changes year to year. Each team is different, and we’ll see if we get good enough to be in that conversation. We certainly haven’t been yet, but you shouldn’t be two or three weeks in.
“But we have a long, long way to go to be in that conversation. So it’s more about proving that we belong in it with our play, and not any predictions or not any prognostication. I think that’s where we are. If we’re fortunate enough to play well throughout the year, then I’ll have a better feel for answering that question later. Each team is different. Each team has its own set of challenges.”
Perhaps the biggest initial challenge for this group will be making it to the middle of January, and the return of Kemba Walker from knee rehabilitation. Based on the offensive stagnation so evident in their two exhibition losses to Philadelphia and Brooklyn, the Celtics need connectivity at both ends of the floor.
Here’s a rundown of where each player stands on a new season’s eve.
THE CORE FIVE
Jayson Tatum: Befitting his status — a recent Washington Post Top 100 list had him ranked as the 12th-best player in the NBA — Tatum has a lot on his plate. He wants to be an all-NBA caliber defender, and only showed that ability in stretches during the playoffs. He wants to be a better playmaker, and has a chance to be great in that respect considering the double-teams that come his way every night. Tatum will have another enormous growth spurt this season. He’s already one of the NBA’s great young talents.
Jaylen Brown: Brown’s offensive package is elite. He comes back each time with something new, and is the best rim finisher the Celtics have. His 3-pointer offers a great counterbalance, and his free throw shooting improved not only in terms of percentage last season (.729), but also in terms of attempts (4.3 from 2.7 in 2019-20). His powerful burst considered, those attempts should climb again as he improves at drawing contact. He’s a potentially elite defender who still has lapses in that end. He’ll improve there, too.
Kemba Walker: So it turns out the real Kemba Walker hasn’t been seen since sometime around last December, when he averaged 23.2 points over 13 games. His numbers went down steadily from there as knee soreness took hold. And now he’s out until sometime in January as the guard rehabilitates his knee in a strengthening program designed to end the soreness once and for all. The Celtics need that December Walker to get over the conference finals hump. Tatum, under heavy coverage, needs that player too to take off pressure, especially now that Gordon Hayward has left. A healthy Walker changes everything.
Marcus Smart: Is he simply streaky, or a gunner who doesn’t know when to back off? Smart admitted this week that he’s working on his shot selection, and his changing role may dictate as much. He’s the starting point guard with Walker out, and Brad Stevens wants him to run the offense, above all else. There’s a tough balance there for a player who has supreme confidence in his shooting. But his most important role remains setting the tone defensively. His scoring can’t get in the way of that.
Daniel Theis: Nearly made this the Core Four after Hayward’s departure, but Theis has played his way into a core role with his defensive versatility and rim-running capability. The Celtics’ best lineup remains with Theis at the five. Look for an improved 3-pointer this year.
Tristan Thompson: An elite offensive rebounding threat who brings the defensive edge and toughness not so evident on his new team in the playoffs. Like Walker, he needs the appropriate rest to be effective. But the Celtics need as much as they can get from him, because their toughness is open to debate.
Jeff Teague: The Celtics’ only efficient shooter during the preseason. He’ll play a big role right off the bat with Walker out, and can keep up some of the offensive pressure. Also like Walker, unfortunately, not great defensively. But he’s more aggressive with the ball and a greater scoring threat than the player he replaces, Brad Wanamaker.
Grant Williams: Though his small-ball center role will likely decrease because of Thompson, at bottom-line time Stevens prefers to go with that kind of lineup. Williams is a high basketball IQ type whose overall skill and burgeoning 3-pointer may even increase his role.
Robert Williams: Kind of difficult to peg exactly where Williams will be in the rotation. His enormous talent begs for major minutes at the five, and no other Celtic protects the rim better, but he also still needs work at both ends. Has never played a full season, and this could be his chance to show real growth, provided he stays on the floor.
Aaron Nesmith: He has the irreplaceable gift of pure shooting. A rotation spot is his if the rookie can make that weapon felt. Nesmith has also looked decent defensively, which of course is prerequisite on a Brad Stevens team.
Semi Ojeleye: His defense-based foundation will always have Stevens looking his way. But Ojeleye’s offense seems to have hit its ceiling.
Javonte Green: Stevens likes his fearless nature, and Green’s burst makes him a great transition option.
Payton Pritchard: He received a decent chunk of playing time in training camp, and has won his teammates over with his toughness and willingness to attack on offense. In the chase for minutes at the bottom of the rotation, Pritchard has certainly made himself a candidate.
IN THE WAITING ROOM
Carsen Edwards: Could have used a good summer league run, and didn’t get much chance to let his jump shot breathe in training camp. He also appears to have lost ground to Pritchard, a shooting point guard.
Romeo Langford: By the time he left for good with a groin injury in the Eastern Conference Finals, Langford was having two-way success in the rotation. Now he’s not expected back until possibly February.
Tacko Fall: He’ll get to spend all of his time with the parent club this winter, and his practice presence may be just what Rob Williams needs.
Tremont Waters: Always a great player to watch, and someone who had some bright moments late in those two exhibition games. But like Edwards, he seems to have lost some ground to Pritchard.
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