ORLANDO — Brad Stevens knows the issue well. The Celtics are fighting to avoid the play-in round because of their disappointing record against losing teams, and including Wednesday night, Boston’s next two opponents are in that category.
These are must-win games for the Celtics — at Orlando and at Chicago — to avoid having to play extra games to qualify for the playoffs. But they have struggled against teams with losing records, with six defeats to the Kings, Pelicans, and Pistons, and additional losses to the Thunder, Cavaliers, and Bulls.
The Celtics have two wins each over the Bucks, Clippers, and Nuggets, but had struggled as a favorite, before pounding the lowly Magic, 132-96, on Wednesday.
“When you talk about opportunity, this is the time of year where young players are getting the opportunity to play free, that’s obviously a scary thing,” Stevens said before Wednesday night’s game against the Magic. “I think the other reality is we’re not that much separated from these teams. We’re not special. I guess my point would be, if you want to be special, be even better than we’ve been and then maybe we can be in that category.
“Right now we’re in seventh place. That’s not really a place to be playing up or down. We have to play well to win, as I’ve said all year.”
The Celtics have been hit hard by injuries and COVID-19 this season, barely able to field a healthy roster. The hope is the Celtics are healthy in two weeks when the playoffs begin.
“A lot of times in a lot of those games we were really shorthanded and we gave ourselves a chance,” Stevens said, “but didn’t do enough little things, including turning it over too much, to win. We’re just not good enough not to do that, and that’s just the reality of our team.”
The Celtics were again shorthanded Wednesday night, with Jaylen Brown (right ankle) and Tristan Thompson (strained left pectoral) out. They added Romeo Langford to the injury report about three hours prior to the game after he was placed in concussion protocol.
Stevens said Langford bumped heads with a teammate during Tuesday’s practice and woke up Wednesday with a headache. It’s been an injury-riddled two NBA seasons for Langford, who has been felled by wrist surgery, a torn thumb ligament, a sprained ankle, and a nasty bout with COVID-19.
Langford will have to pass a series of tests to be cleared to play, and it could take several days for the swingman to return. Brown did not make the trip but could join the team in Chicago.
Wednesday night’s game was Evan Fournier’s first in Orlando since the Celtics acquired him from the Magic on March 25. Fournier sparkled with 10 first-quarter points and then watched as the Magic played a tribute video at the end of the period. Fournier finished with 18 points, 5 rebounds, 4 assists, and 2 steals.
“Evan is a great competitor, a great teammate,” Magic coach Steve Clifford said before the game. “When you’re a head coach, you want somebody who’s a reliable competitor, and you never had to worry about his readiness to play, the way he prepared himself to get ready to play, and then he adds an offensive component to his game that made him a very valuable player.”
Knows Walker well
There isn’t a coach who has worked with Kemba Walker more than Clifford, who coached the point guard for five seasons with the Hornets. Clifford has long admired Walker, who helped the Hornets reach the postseason twice in that span.
Walker returned to the lineup Wednesday after missing four games because of a left oblique strain and scored a season-high 32 points. Clifford was asked before the game if he thought Walker was close to being back at full speed.
“I think much closer. I think whenever you miss that much time it could take a while,” Clifford said. “But he’s such a hard worker and I would think that he’s trying to get himself ready so by the time the playoffs start he’ll be back to being a factor. Listen, there’s no better competitor, nobody wants to win more, and no better teammate than Kemba Walker.”
Wagner finds home
The Celtics waived Moe Wagner April 16 to make roster space for Jabari Parker, and Wagner found his way to the Magic and is now a starter. Wagner scored 24 points in Orlando’s comeback win over Memphis on Saturday and had 20 on Wednesday night. The Magic were without Wendell Carter Jr. (eye), Hamilton, Mass., native Michael Carter-Williams (sprained left ankle), James Ennis (sore right calf), Terrence Ross (back spasms), Otto Porter Jr. (left foot), and Chuma Okeke (sprained left ankle) … With Thompson out, Tacko Fall was placed on the active list to give the Celtics another big man off the bench. With Brown and Langford out, guard Tremont Waters was also active.