Once again, just when it seems the Celtics are going to be healthy and whole, injuries kick in and derail their plan. Not that they would have beaten the visiting Chicago Bulls on Friday night with Robert Williams, but losing him yet again to another abnormal injury is frustrating for an organization that has put so much faith in him.
While Daniel Theis was far from the prototype NBA center, he served a real purpose for the Celtics before he was traded away so the team could get under the luxury tax. Then the Bulls clobbered the Celtics with the same type of double-big lineup Brad Stevens tried with Theis and Tristan Thompson that failed miserably.
The good news for the Celtics is Williams was listed as probable for Sunday afternoon’s critical game against the Miami Heat. The teams will play again Tuesday at TD Garden, and the Celtics need all the reinforcements they can get against Miami center Bam Adebayo, who destroyed the Celtics’ big men in last fall’s Eastern Conference finals.
The Celtics were supposed to upgrade the position to compete with the likes of Adebayo when they added Thompson, but president of basketball operations Danny Ainge also put faith that Williams would remain healthy when he dealt away Theis.
That plan has not worked at all.
Williams has missed 16 games because of various injuries and a bout with COVID-19. Without a productive third center, more pressure has been put on the undersized Thompson, who has played his entire career at a disadvantage against bigger centers.
Williams is able to give the Celtics an athletic element and it has been effective. The Celtics are 29-22 this season when Williams plays, 6-10 when he doesn’t.
What Ainge failed to do after the trade deadline is add another center. The club went after Andre Drummond, but it was well known that he was headed for the Lakers the moment he was bought out by the Cavaliers.
Gorgui Dieng received a buyout from the Grizzlies and eventually signed with San Antonio, where has made little impact. Khem Birch got out of Orlando with a buyout but the Montreal native immediately agreed to a deal with Toronto.
Either player would have added depth to the Celtics’ front court, but they weren’t signed. So Stevens was relegated Friday to using 7-foot-5-inch project Tacko Fall for critical second-half minutes and that didn’t work either. Two alley-oops to Fall were botched and he also committed two fouls in his short stint.
The Celtics’ faith in Williams is understandable because he’s made such a drastic improvement over the past year, but trading Theis and not replacing him was a major miscue. The Heat signed Dewayne Dedmon off the street a month ago and he’s averaging 7.6 points and 5.8 rebounds in just 13 minutes a game for Miami.
Boston had big man options.
Stevens has relied upon 7-2 Luke Kornet for center minutes but he’s not physical enough to compete with legitimate centers. And after hitting four of his first seven 3-point attempts for the Celtics, Kornet has hit four of his past 19.
The Celtics are going to have to hope Williams stays healthy over the next month when they are in the playoffs. Thompson has been exactly as advertised, premium offensive rebounder who can score around the basket, though he misses his share of layups.
Williams and Thompson, along with Grant Williams in stretches, should be enough to provide resistance to Adebayo, whose numbers this season are even better than his All-Star season in 2019-20. The hope is the Celtics are better prepared for the Heat than they were in the Eastern Conference finals and play harder in the fourth quarters when the games are on the line.
Sunday’s game will be a monumental test for the Celtics. They appeared completely prepared for the challenge until their clunker Friday. Now Stevens is in a position where he has been too often this season, having no idea how he team will respond to an important game.
Stevens was outcoached by counterpart Erik Spoelstra in the Eastern Conference finals. Adebayo changed the series with his playmaking ability, Tyler Herro and Duncan Robinson burned the Celtics with their 3-point shooting, and Goran Dragic easily won his matchup with Marcus Smart.
Like the Celtics, the Heat have endured their troubles throughout the season but they are healthy and 14-7 since the last week of March. The Celtics handled the Heat in Miami on Jan. 6, with Payton Pritchard scoring the winning layup after Boston blew a late lead.
But that was four months ago and there has been a lot of turmoil during that span for the Celtics. They do have an opportunity to avoid the play-in tournament and finish the regular season strong with a pair of wins over the Heat. But that will be a difficult task.