The Celtics were down at halftime in Sacramento on Sunday, surrendering 60 points against a Kings team missing leading scorer Zach Randolph. On the heels of announcing that Kyrie Irving would miss at least three weeks after undergoing “minor” knee surgery on Saturday, Boston wasn’t putting together a reassuring performance through 24 minutes against one of the league’s worst teams.
That Brad Stevens got everyone to buy in on clamping down defensively in what ended up being a 104-93 victory where the Celtics gave up just 33 second-half points is a great sign, because they’re no longer going to have one of the game’s top closers to pull games out down the stretch.
The NBA schedule stops for no one, and it is looking increasingly likely that Boston will tip off Game 1 of the playoffs at home without its top two offseason acquisitions, Irving and Gordon Hayward, who went down in the regular-season’s opening minute.
Boston has been cursed by injuries this month, the latest of which is the most significant since the team was counting on Irving’s championship pedigree to help serve as the stabilizing force for a young roster. Al Horford is capable of leading the group in that capacity, while Marcus Smart’s return from a broken thumb should help the team get out of a first round where they likely won’t be able to count on Irving’s contributions until late in a series.
“We hope. Who knows? Marcus was six to eight weeks before basketball activity and Kyrie is three to six before basketball activity,” Stevens told the Boston Herald prior to Sunday’s game in Sacramento. “Again, that’s basketball activity. There’s a big difference between that and playing, so we don’t know when we’re going to have those guys back.
“I’ve texted with him. Left him a message this morning and haven’t heard back. But the timeline will be determined on how he feels and how quickly he can get back out on the court and everything else. There’s still a process after that, too, to be ready to play in a game.”
Smart tore the ulnar collateral ligament in his right shooting hand upon diving for a loose ball against the Pacers on March 11. Second-year wing Jaylen Brown has missed time due to a concussion and is just getting back in a rhythm. Promising German big man Daniel Theis after undergoing knee surgery early in the month. After coming out of the All-Star break with four straight wins, bad breaks have put a major damper on their aspirations of winning another Eastern Conference title.
Considering they’ll be shorthanded throughout April, it’s unlikely that Boston will be able to catch Toronto for the top record in the East. The teams will meet at TD Garden on March 31 and at the Air Canada Centre on April 4, so they will decide things on the floor. The Raptors appear to have a significant edge, carrying a 3.5-game cushion into the week in addition to a completely healthy roster despite losing at home against the Clippers.
Toronto will also have three full days without action to prepare for the Celtics, who are continuing a four-game road trip with tonight’s second of a back-to-back against depleted Phoenix. Boston will face Utah on Wednesday and is currently in a stretch where it is playing eight of 10 games away from home, so we’ll see how resilient they are after coming up with a big second half in California’s capital city.
Terry Rozier has been handed the reins to the Celtics’ offense and should be the primary catalyst at both ends of the floor. He went 12-for-16 from the floor against the Kings, hitting eight 3-pointers to score a career-high 33 points. He was one 3-pointer shy of tying Boston’s all-time record for single-game makes from beyond the arc.
Brown contributed 19 points in his return from the NBA’s concussion protocol, so it remains to be seen whether the Celtics are cautious with him tonight in spite of their lack of depth. Marcus Morris sat in Sacramento after spraining an ankle in Friday’s win in Portland, so winning in Phoenix is likely to hinge on getting production from Greg Monroe, Semi Ojeleye and Abdel Nader off the bench.
The Suns could provide a stiffer challenge if Devin Booker is able to return from a hand sprain that has sidelined him the last few games, but his status is currently up in the air. There’s no line on this one yet as a result. Forward T.J. Warren is doubtful due to a knee injury that has kept him out of the mix, allowing rookie Josh Jackson to get more touches in the offense.
Phoenix has lost a league-worst 11 straight games and enters this game with the NBA’s worst record, a half-game back of Memphis. The Suns are 1-21 since Feb. 2, defeating only the Grizzlies. They’ve beaten only two teams with winning records since mid-December, so this is a game the Celtics should be able to claim despite their injury woes.
Boston won its 50th game of the season against Sacramento and is closing in on its projected win total (53.5) in spite of March’s attrition. Even if they collapse in April, the Celtics are unlikely to finish any lower than second in the East, which would currently draw Giannis Antetokounmpo-led Milwaukee. Miami, who is 2-1 against the Celtics and have received a boost from Kelly Olynyk of late, is another potential first-round foe, sitting in eighth place as the week begins.
The Westgate Superbook gave Boston 4-to-1 odds to get out of the Eastern Conference when updating their numbers last Monday, ranking it behind the Raptors (5/6) and Cavs (7/4). Irving’s knee surgery won’t help matters, but he’s expected to make a full recovery so I don’t anticipate anyone overreacting to his absence. It will be interesting to see what happens with Golden State considering Stephen Curry is expected to miss the first round of the Western Conference playoffs following his own knee trouble.
The Celtics are playing only their second back-to-back since the All-Star break — their first this entire month. They won a road back-to-back at Detroit and New York on Feb. 23-24 to improve to 7-4 on the second night of such situations this season. They’ve got two more remaining in April, with the next one coming in Milwaukee and Toronto next week, making it the most important of the season.
The Pistons and Hornets probably have to realistically win out in order to make the playoffs, so both take the court as home favorites in must-win situations.
The Lakers are making their first trip into Detroit’s new Little Caesar’s Arena and should have Julius Randle available despite an ankle tweak suffered in Saturday’s win in Memphis. He’s shot nearly 58 percent from the field this month, averagaing 22.8 points and 9.8 rebounds and should again be the team’s primary catalyst with Brandon Ingram still out due to a hip injury. He’s listed as doubtful, while Isaiah Thomas has been ruled out due to a sore hip.
Detroit may be without Stanley Johnson, who left Saturday’s game against the Bulls with a right glute injury.
Nicolas Batum has been out with an achilles injury that the Hornets have persevered through, but he’s been upgraded to questionable and may participate against the visiting Knicks. Cody Zeller (knee) remains out, while New York big man Kyle O’Quinn is questionable with a hip strain.
The Nuggets won’t have shooting guard Gary Harris against the 76ers since he’s targeting a Friday return from a knee injury that’s cost him the last few games. Denver has won consecutive games but remains in last place in the Northwest Division, 1.5 games behind Utah and Minnesota in the race for the final few playoff spots available in the West.
The Timberwolves are getting closer to getting Jimmy Bulter back from a knee injury, but will have to make due without him tonight against Memphis. Derrick Rose has provided a boost, but is dealing with an ankle issue and may not be available against Memphis.
The Grizzlies won’t have Tyreke Evans available again and list Chandler Parsons as questionable due to knee soreness.