Don’t miss NBC Sports Boston’s coverage of Celtics-Bucks, which begins Friday at 5:30 p.m. with Celtics Pregame Live followed by tip-off at 6:30 p.m. You can also stream the game on the MyTeams App.
Are you ready for some Bubbleball?
The NBA is back, baby, and the Boston Celtics play their first real basketball game in nearly five months when they dance with the Eastern Conference-leading Milwaukee Bucks on Friday night. (Coverage on NBC Sports Boston starts at 5:30 p.m.)
Download the MyTeams app for the latest Celtics news and analysis
Need a quick refresher on the Celtics and where they stand entering the restart? Here’s a handful of the top storylines as Boston dives into game action in Orlando:
HOW CONCERNING IS KEMBA WALKER’S KNEE?
Six months after left knee soreness first forced him to miss time, Walker is still dealing with lingering pain. That doesn’t seem like a great look. He’ll be on a strict minutes restriction to start the seeding games with the team hopeful that there will be no limitations when the playoffs start in mid-August.
Celtics coach Brad Stevens has downplayed concerns, noting this week that Walker’s knee is as strong as it has been since the team first gathered for training camp in September. Still, Walker has admitted there’s still pain and nine minutes of scrimmage action didn’t tell us much about how the knee will respond to a hefty playoff workload.
Our panic meters aren’t chirping too loudly just yet, but it’s going to be a constant storyline throughout this bubble experience. Ultimately, the Celtics need something close to a healthy Walker to compete for a title.
Prediction: Walker’s knee will be a daily talking point, especially when he struggles to impact a seeding game or if he’s not on the floor in a crucial moment because his playing time is up. But the diligence of player and team is rewarded in the playoffs where Walker’s knee is never an issue while he plays heavy minutes.
WILL JAYSON TATUM PICK UP WHERE HE LEFT OFF?
Tatum is technically the reigning Eastern Conference Player of the Month, having earned the honor with an absurd February in which he averaged over 30 points per game and had LeBron James dubbing him an, “Absolute Problem.” In the final two months before the break, Tatum earned his first All-Star nod, likely played his way into an All-NBA berth, and looked like a bonafide superstar given his two-way talents.
It’s probably unfair to expect Tatum to be February Tatum out of the gates. There will be rust, which he displayed plenty of in the two scrimmages he appeared in. But with Walker on a minutes restriction, he’s going to have to shoulder much of the offensive load, so the Celtics would love to get, say, January Tatum, at the very least.
One thing is certain: The Celtics played their best basketball when Tatum was on the court and, even if Tatum isn’t putting up loud scoring outputs, he needs to continue to positively impact the team’s play.
Prediction: Tatum won’t be February Tatum out of the gates, but he’ll be very good. He’ll have stretches where he really gets cooking but any dip in offensive output is offset by his defensive efforts. Tatum further asserts himself as Boston’s No. 1 option.
CAN THE CELTICS GET THE No. 2 SEED?
Boston trails Toronto by three games in the quest for the second spot in the East. Closing that gap over eight games won’t be easy but Boston is aided by a head-to-head matchup on August 7 that could go a long way towards making things interesting.
In a neutral-site environment, however, there’s little motivation for Boston to push too hard just to shimmy up one spot. The Celtics and Raptors could see each other in the East semifinals regardless of who is the No. 2 seed.
Boston’s motivation to seek a higher seed might simply be an easier first-round matchup. If there is no movement in the standings during the seeding games, Boston would line up with the Philadelphia 76ers in a 3-6 matchup. That’s a daunting draw given Philly’s collection of talent, including stars Joel Embiid and Ben Simmons. Toronto, meanwhile, would draw a more agreeable first-round opponent like Orlando or Brooklyn in the 2-7 pairing.
The good news for Boston is that, barring a bad stumble in seeding play, it’s unlikely the team would fall slip backwards to the No. 4 seed. Based on projections, Boston’s most likely first-round opponents is the Pacers in a 3-6 battle and that’s a team with a bunch of question marks about its health. Considering the Celtics swept a Victor Oladipo-less Indiana team to start the playoffs a year ago, that might not be the worst draw.
Prediction: As the Celtics tread cautiously with Walker’s knee in seeding games, they dawdle their way to a 4-4 mark and settle for maintaining their clutch on the No. 3 seed. A first-round playoff series with the injury-riddled Pacers starts their playoff path.
CAN THE CELTICS TRULY COMPETE FOR A TITLE?
If Boston can get Walker near full health for the postseason, the Celtics have the talent and chemistry to make a legitimate run. Boston was one of the few teams that ranked in the top 10 in both offensive and defensive rating before the season paused and yet we don’t quite know the ceiling for this team because it was so rarely healthy enough to determine that.
Boston will trot out a starting lineup that essentially features four All-Star-caliber players. Few teams will have a Jaylen Brown as a third option or a Gordon Hayward as a fourth option. Few teams will have an Energizer Bunny like Marcus Smart coming off the bench.
But whether Boston can stay healthy and put everything together remains to be seen. The Celtics had their top 7 players healthy for just eight games before the break. Part of the motivation to be part of the restart was players’ eagerness to see what a healthy Boston roster can accomplish.
Prediction: The absence of home-court advantage turns out to be an advantage for the Celtics. Without having to go north of the border in Round 2, they slip past the Raptors. Likewise in the Eastern Conference Finals, Milwaukee’s supporting cast isn’t as daunting on a neutral floor. Alas, Boston’s quest for a spot in the Finals is dashed by Giannis Antetokounmpo and his quest to take the next step with his Bucks.
WHAT DID WE LEARN FROM BOSTON’S THREE SCRIMMAGES?
Not much. The Celtics were super rusty in their opener against Oklahoma City, looked a little crisper with Walker on the court for short minutes against Phoenix, then rested all their veterans in the finale against Houston.
Brown was a bright spot, playing like the season never paused. Brown worked relentlessly through the break to ensure he hit the ground running in Orlando, which he’s done both on the court and with his efforts in the social justice movement off of it.
The Celtics will likely use the eight seeding games to ramp themselves up with Stevens repeatedly saying his goal is to have the Celtics playing their best basketball when the playoffs start on Aug. 17.
The Celtics are hoping to have a unrestricted Walker at that point and a starting five that played a mere 188 minutes together over 17 regular-season games might finally get an extended chance to show what they are capable of.
Celtics Talk Podcast: Do the Celtics have bigger concerns than Giannis? | Listen & subscribe | Watch on YouTube
ARE ANY OF THE YOUNGER PLAYERS READY TO CONTRIBUTE?
Stevens noted how some of the Celtics’ best minutes during scrimmage play might have been when Grant Williams was playing small-ball center. Williams is the most likely candidate among Boston’s seven-member rookie class to earn a consistent rotation role, especially if he can continue to bring the best out of Boston’s top players.
Everyone else still has a bit of work to earn Stevens’ trust. Lottery pick Romeo Langford was starting to emerge a bit before the shutdown and will see time in certain matchups. Second-year big man Robert Williams oozes potential and is like no other center on the roster with this athleticism, but he has rarely been healthy enough to state his case for an elevated role.
The Celtics will lean heavy on their top – the starting five plus a bench unit of Marcus Smart, Enes Kanter, and Brad Wanamaker – and the younger players will have to state their case for time. Any injury for Boston could thrust one of those younger players into an elevated role.
Prediction: Grant Williams plays a hefty role in the seeding games while Stevens further experiments with playing him as small-ball 5. Langford gets an uptick in minutes, too, as the minutes limit on Walker forces Stevens to add a wing to the rotation to help eat minutes in the seeding games. Grant Williams’ role continues in the postseason, while Langford’s chances are more sporadic as rotations tighten.
WILL WE SEE TACKO FALL IN THE BUBBLE?
Fall, a two-way center who spent much of the year with the Maine Red Claws, is with the Celtics in Orlando. Stevens could deploy him as a curveball in seeding games, especially if starters play reduced roles.
In a fan-less environment, though, Fall won’t have to hear fans relentlessly chanting for him to be inserted into lopsided games.
Prediction: Stevens used to joke that he would deploy Fall in the middle of a sleepy January home game in order to give his team and arena some energy. The absence of fans diminishes that possibility in the bubble. Celtics fans are left waiting to see Fall get a smattering of PT in a lopsided seeding game or two when others get rest.
WHICH CELTICS PLAYER COULD BE THE X-FACTOR?
Keep an eye on Smart inside the bubble. Especially as the Celtics ramp up Walker, Smart will play starter-like minutes and his fingerprints need to be all over the bubble in order for the Celtics to thrive.
Smart must set the tone defensively, and he might singlehandedly swing a game or two with all his hustle and grit.
Prediction: Smart remains our choice for the player who most elevates their play inside the bubble and ultimately has the most impact outside of his pre-pause role. The one wild card: Brown has the potential to simply own the bubble, both on and off the court. There’s a small chance he makes the sort of Tatum-like in-season leap and asserts himself as a perennial All-Star and Tatum’s long-term partner in basketball crime.
FINAL THOUGHTS: HOW WILL THE CELTICS FARE?
The restart is such an unprecedented event that it’s hard to know for sure exactly how this will all play out. Stevens has implored his team to find joy inside the bubble and players have embraced making the most of a very unique situation.
Beyond basketball, the Celtics are eager to use the bubble platform to promote societal change. Players like Brown and Smart, in particular, have used their media sessions to call for justice for Breonna Taylor and to encourage people to vote. Much of the good the Celtics do in Orlando will extend beyond the hardwood.
On the court, it’s a chance to see just how good this group can be. If Walker stays healthy, the Celtics feel like they have a legitimate shot to compete for a title. The lingering question is what sort of variables the bubble might present and how it impacts Boston’s chances.
Basketball is back. Buckle up, this Disney ride could be far more exhilarating than Space Mountain. Let’s hope the ride is worth the long wait to get back to basketball.
Prediction: Bucks in 7 in the Eastern Conference finals. But, hey, in the bubble, (Kevin Garnett voice) ANYTHING IS POSSIBLE!
Everything you need to know about the Celtics restart originally appeared on NBC Sports Boston