Forsberg: Celtics have a blueprint for late-season surge originally appeared on NBC Sports Boston
If you’re looking for something to cling to with these roller coaster Boston Celtics, let it be the words and actions of Jaylen Brown.
Coming off Tuesday’s flabbergasting loss to the Oklahoma City Thunder, Brown challenged his teammates to play with a heightened sense of urgency. He backed up that declaration by scoring 20 of his 38 points in the first quarter of Wednesday’s bounce-back against the Charlotte Hornets.
Look, we’re not telling you to start planning a duck boat parade. Heck, we wouldn’t even sweat keeping your calendar clear for early June. But Brown’s passion should at least give you a sliver of hope that this team isn’t content to let its season be defined by health woes and bad losses.
After Wednesday’s game, Brown said he will not allow his teammates to get down on themselves based on all that’s gone wrong.
"The sky is the limit,” said Brown. "I know it's been a back-and-forth season, a lot of ups and downs, a lot of drama and chaos, and all type of whatever. I always try to put my best foot forward every single night and I'm not going to allow guys to be defeated.
"We've got to come out and we've got to fight. I know people are probably tired of hearing it but I'm gonna keep saying it because that's the type of person I am.”
Can the Celtics block out the negativity that hovers around this team because of its inconsistent ways this season?
"You absolutely can. We know the city we play in, we know how important the Celtics are to the city, we try to put our best foot forward and represent them well,” said Brown.
"This season there's been a lot of ups and downs. We do appreciate all the people who have been positive. We appreciate the people who have been negative, too. It all comes back full circle. We’re just ready to rock and roll and try to keep this thing going.”
The Celtics were hoping to have their entire top seven healthy for the first time this season on Friday night when the San Antonio Spurs visit. Kemba Walker, however, is listed as doubtful with a left oblique strain.
Gaining chemistry and cohesion is near the top of Boston’s to-do list over the final nine games of the regular season, although Walker’s health won’t make that easy, especially if he sits out the back end of two more back-to-backs on the schedule.
Here’s a few more things that should be at the top of Brad Stevens’ to-do list over the next two weeks:
Premium seeding available
For all their missteps, earning the No. 4 or 5 seed — and a more favorable first-round matchup against one of the teams it’s currently jockeying with — is still within Boston’s reach.
The Celtics entered Friday in the sixth spot in the East — which would put them on a path to play the Milwaukee Bucks, or worse if they dropped into the play-in tournament — but sit only one game back of the Hawks and two games behind the Knicks.
Atlanta has a rematch Friday with a Philadelphia team that just throttled the Hawks by 44, while the Knicks open a six-game West Coast road trip in Houston on Sunday and their competition gets far more daunting with games against Denver, Phoenix, and both Los Angeles squads.
Boston, meanwhile, has the NBA's easiest remaining schedule. A season-finale tilt with the Knicks, which could have serious seeding implications, is the only remaining matchup with a team currently in the top six of either conference.
Getting Evan Fournier going
Evan Fournier, Boston’s big-splash addition as the trade deadline, is having a particularly rough go as he works his way back from a three-week COVID absence. In four games since returning, Fournier has made just 5 of 31 shots (16.1 percent) and just 2 of 14 (14.3 percent) 3-pointers. He’s had some rough defensive stretches, some bad turnovers, a couple missed layups, and wasn’t in the right spot in one key moment against Brooklyn.
These final nine games are super important to getting Fournier back to feeling like himself and playing with confidence, especially as he still adjusts to new personnel around him. We saw how players like Jayson Tatum struggled early in their returns from battling COVID and the Celtics will hope that Fournier isn’t feeling the after-effects quite as much when the playoffs arrive.
Lingering over all this is the fact that Fournier is a free agent this summer. The Celtics have a vested interest in Fournier thriving at the finish line of this season not only to aid a playoff push but to encourage him to re-signing long term.
Defining the playoff rotation
The Celtics have an obvious top eight for the postseason: Brown, Tatum, Walker, Marcus Smart, Tristan Thompson, Robert Williams, Fournier, and Payton Pritchard. There could be matchups that encourage Stevens to expand, occasionally, to nine and, more rarely, 10 players.
Our question: Can Aaron Nesmith make a late-season push to be that ninth spot? We had Romeo Langford pegged for that spot and his defense early in his return from wrist surgery seemed to put him on track for it. Instead, his offensive struggles and sometimes lackadaisical play has relegated him to the land of DNPs. We can see Grant Williams and Semi Ojeleye playing minutes in certain matchups.
Nesmith produced his finest game as a pro against Charlotte. He’s made hustle his NBA calling card. His ability to hunt offensive rebounds, blocks, and steals make him an intriguing turbo shot when Boston is low on energy -- which has happened far too often this season.
We wouldn’t expect to see a lot of a depth wing in the postseason and it’s a bad sign for Boston if health forces the C's to go deep into their bench. But for a team that has too often needed a jolt, we’re intrigued by what Nesmith can infuse in that role. Consistently impacting winning over the final nine games could go a long way toward encouraging rookie-leery Stevens to consider him on the big stage.
Play hard, develop better habits and stay healthy
Here’s the bottom line over the next nine games: Boston needs to play hard, develop better habits, and let the chips fall where they may. The schedule is set up for Boston to thrive near the finish line and, while nothing about this regular season suggests that any game is a slam dunk, the Celtics should be in the mix for that 4/5 spot if they play anywhere near their potential.
Health has to be the priority. This team’s playoff stay will be painfully short without it, as its paper-thin depth has been routinely exposed this year. Maybe that conspires against building momentum and continuity at the finish line but it’s simply the reality of this weird season.
And Boston might simply have to hope that chaos is king when the playoffs arrive.