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The season has been a slog for the Boston Celtics. There was a spate of COVID-related absences that shut down practice for a stretch, a knee injury that hampered Kemba Walker, nine straight games missed by key mid-season acquisition Evan Fournier, and finally a devastating season-ending injury to Jaylen Brown.
The Celtics simply couldn’t find the continuity to keep pace in an increasingly strong Eastern Conference in the lead up to the play-in tournament and 2021 NBA playoffs.
For all the adversity, the Celtics still feature Jayson Tatum, who marched out of the tunnel after halftime on Tuesday night and, with Walker, controlled the opening minutes of the third quarter in the play-in tournament against the Washington Wizards.
Tatum notched 41 points by the end of the third quarter — tied for his most through three quarters in any game of his career, according to ESPN Stats & Information. He would finish with 50 in the Celtics’ 118-100 victory.
In the second-half explosion, Tatum drained from distance and pressured the defense from mid-range. Hit with a double-team down low, he promptly found Walker on the weak-side perimeter for a 3-pointer, one of three triples Walker sank in the first three minutes of the second half. The Celtics ran off a 20-4 run after intermission, a lead they wouldn’t relinquish.
For their effort, the Celtics earn an invitation into the main postseason bracket to face the second-seeded Brooklyn Nets, a series in which the Nets will be a heavy favorite. Brooklyn’s firepower is undeniable — it features one of the league’s most explosive offensive trios in history. But one of the many questions lingering over the Nets’ championship aspirations has been continuity. Kevin Durant, James Harden and Kyrie Irving have played all of eight games and 202 minutes together. Durant and Harden have coped with a spate of injuries in recent weeks. Durant, who missed all of last season with a ruptured Achilles tendon, suffered a hamstring strain over the winter, then a thigh contusion more recently. Harden then endured his own hamstring strain.
Estimations of their historical greatness are easily understood, but they aren’t the product of on-court play, but rather past performance. There’s little reason to believe Brooklyn’s Big Three won’t launch fireworks, but basketball — even played by NBA superstars — requires a little continuity. They’ll seek to find it against a Celtics team that hardly resembles the conference finalist squads of recent seasons.
“Those guys are the best of the best, and going into that if I’m a fan and just a general fan of the NBA, I have a hard time seeing them lose,” said Celtics coach Brad Stevens. “So we’re going to have to play great, we’re going to have to play great together, and we’re going to have to be really, really sound on both ends of the floor.”
Another question mark for Brooklyn: the defense — specifically if the Nets can play enough of it. The NBA playoffs have a long history of “switch-flipping” by offensive juggernauts who, shall we say, deemphasize defense in the regular season only to ratchet up the effort under the brightest lights. Postseason basketball tends to slow down, allowing defenses to set and dig in. Boston isn’t a poor offensive team — they ranked 10th overall this season. But without Brown, options are limited.
Walker will be essential against the Nets, both for his scoring output and his ability to structure the Celtics’ offense. One of the most adept pick-and-roll practitioners in the NBA throughout his career, Walker has been beset by his own series of injuries during his two seasons with Boston.
During their conference finals runs in 2017, 2018 and 2020, the Celtics were an outstanding defensive team, and they’ll need to summon the spirit of those rock-solid teams to have a fighting chance against Brooklyn. When the defense is humming, the Celtics cover ground as well as any unit in the NBA. Smart and Tatum still qualify as an elite defensive wing tandem, and they’ll face a daunting playoff matchup.
For the Wizards, the loss Tuesday night is dejecting, even if their presence in the 7-vs-8 game was improbable. The Wizards are the embodiment of the play-in tournament’s appeal. As recently as April 6, Washington was sitting in 13th in the Eastern Conference, four full games behind No. 10 Chicago, and seven games back of No. 8 Boston. In past seasons, the Wizards might have been inclined to close up shop with an almost impossible task of leaping over four teams and catching the Celtics. But in the NBA’s new world, they stepped on the gas and assembled a 17-6 stretch run to nab the No. 8 seed.
Washington will now fly home, where they’ll face the Indiana Pacers on Thursday night for a chance to meet the top-seeded Philadelphia 76ers in Round One. Pacers-Wizards might not sound like must-see TV, but it will be a matchup between two of the four fastest teams in the NBA. Washington rarely slows down. The Wizards were the NBA’s fastest team this season by a healthy margin. The gap between their pace and that of No. 2 Milwaukee was greater than Milwaukee and No. 7 Oklahoma City. Westbrook and Ish Smith wait for nobody.
Picking up the pace was item No. 1 on the team’s preseason to-do list, and the Pacers zipped around the floor with ease on Tuesday night in their 144-117 shellacking of Charlotte. If confidence and momentum are factors in the elimination game on Thursday night, then the Pacers bring a truckload into Washington.
Hours prior to the game, Caris LeVert was ruled out due to COVID health and safety protocols. But even without their most potent creator, the Pacers put on an offensive exhibition. Against Washington, Indiana will try to replicate its formula from Tuesday night — getting into its offense early, then leveraging interior touches to find clean looks from beyond the arc.
Though neither game on Tuesday night delivered on drama, the novelty provided some intrigue. This was undoubtedly high-stake playoff basketball by another name.