22 Teams in 22 Days: Jason Tatum Evolving Into Superstar for the Celtics
The Boston Celtics will be heading into the NBA restart as one of the top contenders in the East, and if this team is at full strength, they have the potential to make a deep run in the postseason. Led by third-year forward Jayson Tatum, Boston has been among the league’s best this season on both ends of the floor, ranking in the top five in both offensive and defensive rating. However, five months away from the game is a long time, and just as all the teams in Orlando will have to rebuild their momentum quickly, Boston is no exception.
The hiatus gave some of their key players like Kemba Walker and Jaylen Brown time to recover and rest up for what the Celtics are hoping is a long stay at Disney World. But, the ruling is still out on if this young team filled with talented players can perform in the postseason and get over that hump to make the NBA Finals.
Here’s a look at the Celtics’ roster, schedule and key storylines for when the season resumes in Orlando on July 30.
Players sitting out: None
All times Eastern
Kemba Walker’s health: Walker was dealing with what has been described as left knee soreness, and it caused him to miss games here and there since the All-Star break. The thought was that the four months off would allow him to fully heal and return back to “Cardiac Kemba.” However, prior to the Celtics traveling to the NBA bubble, reports surfaced that Walker still felt discomfort in his knee after going through individual workouts in Boston. He’s been limited in practices in Florida, and Boston coach Brad Stevens recently said their All-Star guard would be on a minutes restriction in all eight of the team’s seeding games.
Walker isn’t too concerned about his health, rather just frustrated that he’s not at full health. While him being on a minutes restriction isn’t ideal, it’s smart on Boston’s part considering the postseason is far more important than the remaining eight games on their regular-season schedule. If the former Charlotte Hornets star can reach full health in time for the playoffs, it will only strengthen an already loaded roster, especially if Walker comes back and plays like how he did when Boston beat the Clippers back in early February. Walker nearly put up a triple-double — 19 points, nine rebounds and seven assists — in a game where Jayson Tatum put up 39 points and Marcus Smart added 31 of his own. While Jaylen Brown was sidelined for that game, that performance from a team perspective is exactly what Boston hopes to replicate throughout the postseason.
Tatum’s play come playoffs: While Walker was dealing with his knee issue, Tatum stepped into the No. 1 scoring option seamlessly, and was absolutely demolishing opposing teams night after night. In the final month before the season was postponed, the third-year forward averaged just shy of 30 points a game, along with eight rebounds and three assists. It wasn’t just his offensive game either. On defense, Tatum allows just 0.836 points per possession, which ranks seventh in the league (min. 500 possessions), per Synergy Sports. In just one season, Tatum has transcended from an up-and-coming young player to a bona fide star, giving the Celtics someone to rely upon as players have gone down left and right throughout the season.
The question, though, is if Tatum can carry this type of production into the playoffs, and even elevate his game even further. We’ve seen him have some standout moments in the playoffs in his previous two seasons, but in 2019-20 he’s taken on a much larger role on this team and will be asked to do far more as the Celtics have the potential to make the East finals. If Tatum can pick up where he left off in March, Boston could be a challenge for a team like Milwaukee or Toronto at the top of the East.
Will the Celtics be able to avoid the Sixers in the first round?: Before the Celtics can think about the Eastern Conference finals, they could potentially have an extremely tough first-round matchup against the 76ers. In four meetings with Philadelphia this season, the Boston went just 1-3. In one matchup, the Celtics struggled mightily in trying to contain Joel Embiid, who went off for 38 points, 13 rebounds and six assists. The Sixers’ length isn’t an ideal matchup for Boston, because now with Al Horford in Philly, the Celtics don’t have anyone who can neutralize Embiid.
Philadelphia will be at full strength when the season returns. It begins with the return of Ben Simmons, who missed nine of the last 10 games the Sixers played before the hiatus. The bright side of this for Boston, though, is that Philly is tied with the Indiana pacers for the fifth spot in the East standings. The Sixers will have a very real opportunity to move up to the No. 5 spot, which would benefit the Celtics greatly, as they match up better with the Pacers. Nothing is guaranteed, though, so Boston will just have to sit back and hope Philadelphia can climb up the standings to avoid it in the first round.