5 things Celtics need to accomplish post-All-Star break

Nick Friar
February 19, 2020 - 9:40 am

The Celtics have 28 games left on their regular season schedule. Then the 2020 NBA Playoffs get rolling. A lot can happen between now and then.

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Boston is currently third in the Eastern Conference standings at 38-16. They’re eight games behind the top-seeded Bucks. But, while it’s unlikely the Celtics will improve their stock to that level, they can absolutely climb the ladder. And moving up that one spot can make a huge difference — which is why taking over the second spot in the East is one of the five things the Celtics have to accomplish before the playoffs get rolling:

Become No. 2 in the East

The Raptors are 1.5 games ahead of the Celtics coming out of the All-Star break. The Heat only trail the Raptors by 4.5 games, so they’re in the mix, too. Philly is six games behind Toronto, so No. 2 might be too much for them, but No. 3 is within range.

Either way, the No. 2 spot is huge because there’s a significant drop off from the No. 6 Pacers to the No. 7 Nets — who could very well be without Kyrie Irving come playoff time. If the Magic somehow snuck into the seventh spot, they would also be a good matchup for the No. 2 team.

But No. 3 v. No. 6 will be very tough this year. Of course, No. 4 v. No. 5 won’t be easy either.

That being said, the Celtics can’t worry about what’s behind them. They need to catch the Raptors. That means taking care of business when the soft spots on the schedule come up — like the three-game stretch mid-March when the Celtics face the Wizards, Bulls and Knicks.

A few big wins over the Lakers and the Rockets, among other teams, would help, too. (And it might give the C’s a little extra confidence as they look toward the playoffs.)

Firm up the defense

The defense has been good for a while now. Rotations have been tight on most nights.

The games where the Celtics give up an overload of quality looks along the perimeter can’t happen. That’s not to say they have to play mistake-free, Boston just has to make adjustments mid-game.

Because, in the playoffs, when things start to snowball on the defensive end, a game can get out of hand very quickly.

Tatum Takeover

Jayson Tatum had a huge game against the Clippers. Not only offensively, but defensively, as well. Another step toward being the elite player Gregg Popovich thinks Tatum can be on both ends of the floor.

Clearly, this has been a huge year for Tatum. But if he wants to become one of the 10 best players in the league, Tatum can’t rest on what he’s done to this point.

He’s becoming “The Guy” for the Celtics — if his teammates don’t already view him that way. With that, opposing teams will try to make life harder for Tatum. He has to work through those challenges — and know when to lean on Kemba Walker and Jaylen Brown.

Settle on a bench rotation

Robert Williams, when he returns, may play a big role in how Brad Stevens utilizes his bench.

But, as much as Williams has the athleticism and build to be a quality rim protector, there’s still the matter of the defense’s fluidity. Williams showed improvements before his injury, but he’s been out for a while. He needs to get on the same page with everyone else so he can be a viable option for the C’s.

Marcus Smart is, of course, the top reserve. Enes Kanter has established a role as a good second and third quarter player.

From there, things are hazy.

Semi Ojeleye seems to be someone Stevens plans to utilize against the bigger teams. Grant Williams and Brad Wanamaker are in the mix often, as well. But the Celtics can’t give all three of these guys major minutes in the postseason with Smart and Kanter, and possibly Time Lord, already taking most of the bench minutes.

Also, it wouldn’t hurt if Stevens established which reserves he can rely on in a pinch late in games, just in case. To this point, Smart is the only reserve who fits that mold.

Stay healthy

Easier said than done, especially when it comes to load management while moving up in the standings needs to be a priority.

More than anyone, Smart needs to be managed. Of course, Walker’s left knee needs to be monitored. Same goes for Gordon Hayward’s left foot.

But with Smart, he’s prone to picking up a bunch of small injuries along the way, which can then turn into a bigger problem. It might be best to give him some scheduled days off.

Because no matter who the Celtics are playing and how he’s feeling, Smart is going as hard as he can at all times.

Also, the C’s need Time Lord back as quickly as possible.