Injuries have been a constant theme of the Celtics season through the highs and lows. Boston was playing well enough to overcome key absences over the first 30 games of the season most nights but that consistency has dissipated in the last three weeks against inferior competition. Problems have bubbled to the surface on both ends of the floor as the Celtics offense and defense have been league average over the last eight games, looking more like a team that will be knocked out of the first round of the playoffs than a contender in the Eastern Conference.
Reinforcements are en route however for tonight’s showdown with the Lakers. The Celtics announced at shootaround this morning that Jaylen Brown (sprained thumb) will be available to play tonight after missing the past two games. Kemba Walker will also be back after a one-game absence after resting a sore left knee.
“Over the years, I’ve had times when I haven’t felt that great, but I was able to push through it,” Walker said of the injury. “But now, like the other day, I couldn’t push. I just couldn’t. So it’s all about how I’m feeling. I always try to make my decisions based on how I’m feeling. The games that I’ve missed, I just haven’t been feeling great.”
Boston’s starting backcourt being back on the floor should give the C’s a boost but that duo is far from guaranteed to solve the team’s issues. Brad Stevens had an extended film session on Sunday in order to address the slippage on both ends of the floor.
“We have to be so much better than we've been, doing all the little things,” Stevens said. “Especially when we've been shorthanded -- I just don't think we've done as good of a job at taking care of every detail that maybe we have in the past. Now, as we get closer to full health, we got to maintain that and do that better. We had a long film session yesterday that addressed that. We will see what happens.”
There will be no better test for the Celtics on that front than the class of the Western Conference in the Lakers. Anthony Davis will make his return to the court tonight after a four-game absence for a Lakers team that has won 10 of its last 11 games.
“They’re elite, they’re elite,” Stevens said. “Obviously everybody, rightly so, talks about LeBron and Davis and they’re two of the best players in the NBA, but then I think they’ve got great guys around them that really know what they’re supposed to do. They do it really hard. They’ve got a couple of guys that have won big here that we’re very familiar with, obviously. The bigs are great for them. Their size and length are a problem. It’s been a problem for everybody in the league, and one of the things when you see it up close, it’s striking how big they are.”
With no Rob Williams in the lineup to throw against Davis still, the C’s will probably have to gamble with Davis double teams or live with Davis shooting over a number of smaller defenders like Grant Williams, Daniel Theis, or Semi Ojeleye. There’s also that LeBron James guy running the ship that will require plenty of attention from Jaylen Brown, Jayson Tatum, and Gordon Hayward.
A healthy Celtics starting five will be valuable to help spread out the Lakers who can be vulnerable defending the 3-point line with true bigs like JaVale McGee and Dwight Howard in the middle. With that said, it’s going to take close to a perfect effort for this personnel to take down the Lakers, something that has been elusive for this group in 2020.
“We’ve been kind of one stop behind on everything offensively and defensively,” Walker said. “I think it’s just a lull and we just have to pick it back up and get our passion back, get our energy up.”
“I think we all know the kind of challenge that they are going to pose,” Marcus Smart added. “If we don't come ready it's going to be another long night for us. I expect everyone in this locker room to be ready and locked in, but we've got to take it to another level Monday.”
The Celtics put together a host of signature wins to begin the season against potential East contenders but there hasn’t been a quality win for this group since Christmas (against a shorthanded Raptors team). With decision time looming about whether to invest in this team for the front office with the trade deadline looming in 15 days, some kind of sign is going to be required before then against a schedule that’s about to ramp up in terms of difficulty.
A win against one of the NBA’s hottest teams would be a great place to start.