The Celtics entered this season believing that they would be among a small group of teams angling for position atop the Eastern Conference. But injuries, COVID-19 absences, and a clear talent deficiency at the end of the bench created challenges.
And now, with just six games left in the regular season, Boston is simply tussling to stay out of the play-in tournament involving the 7-10 seeds. But president of basketball operations Danny Ainge said Thursday he is not ready to consider this a lost year, and he does not believe his players are, either. There is still possibility, and there is still time.
“It’s been a test and it’s been a challenge,” Ainge said. “But we’ll see how our guys respond to this challenge. I really like the guys, and I still think that there is hope and potential, even in this year’s playoffs. But it’s going to take everybody at least being healthy. We say get on the same page, and it’s a lot tougher to be on the same page when you’re not healthy. But I think Brad [Stevens] is a terrific coach and will have a good game plan against our opponent. So I’m excited about this year still, and I’m hopeful.”
The playoffs begin in about two weeks, but Ainge stressed that Boston’s postseason has already started. The Celtics (35-31) entered Thursday night tied for sixth in the East with the Heat, one and a half games behind the fifth-place Hawks.
Boston and Miami will play at TD Garden on Sunday and Tuesday, a brief series that could essentially send one team into the play-in tournament as the No. 7 seed. Ainge said Thursday that All-Star forward Jaylen Brown, who missed Wednesday’s win over the Magic because of a sprained ankle, will sit out Friday’s game against the Bulls but will likely be back for Sunday’s game against the Heat.
If Brown and center Tristan Thompson (pectoral strain) return and there are no new setbacks, Boston will have its full roster available, a true rarity this season. Of course Ainge would have preferred to see his group compete as a complete unit more often, but the fact that it has not creates some extra hope about what could be possible.
“I’m optimistic because of the good that I see,” Ainge said. “I know what the team is capable of and I don’t think it’s a turn-on or turn-off mindset that has made them be inconsistent. I think there are contributing factors to it, and listen, I know how the season has gone so far. I don’t know how it’s going to go as we go forward, but I’m not giving up on them. I’m staying with them and maintaining the hope that we have.”
Kemba Walker returned Wednesday after being sidelined because of an oblique strain, but his troublesome left knee has held up quite well this season, and he seems to be finding his groove. Walker had 32 points against the Magic, and after shooting 38.8 percent from the field prior to the All-Star break he has connected on 43.3 percent of his shots since then. Walker has not played in games on back-to-back nights all year.
“I think that obviously we’d probably have won a few more games at this point if Kemba had played,” Ainge said. “But at the same time, Kemba looks really good. This is what we were hoping for, to have a really good and healthy Kemba. It’s good to see him back, and good to see him healthy and fresh and smiling again.”
Evan Fournier struggled after being sidelined due to COVID-19, but has played well in his last two games and seems to be shaking off the aftereffects of the virus. Rookie Aaron Nesmith, who wasn’t even in the rotation one month ago, has seized an important role as a sparkplug off the bench and figures to at least get a chance to continue his recent surge in the playoffs. There are certainly more options for Boston than there were a few weeks ago, and Ainge feels good about that.
“I give a lot of credit to Aaron and just his approach,” Ainge said. “He’s had to earn everything he’s gotten and he’s earning it now. He’s had an opportunity to play recently and he’s played well and earned his spot. His approach has been outstanding from Day 1. When he doesn’t get what he wants he just is in the gym and working and watching film and trying to do everything he can to earn a spot. I appreciate that about Aaron, and he’s a guy all his teammates are rooting for because of that.”