The coronavirus pandemic halted the NBA season four months ago, the equivalent of an entire offseason. It is easy to forget where everyone left off, let alone what has changed since we last saw NBA basketball. In order to get you up to speed before Thursday’s season re-opening slate at Walt Disney World in Orlando, we will be reviewing and previewing each of the 22 teams scheduled to participate.
[More NBA restart previews: Brooklyn Nets • Dallas Mavericks • Denver Nuggets • Houston Rockets • Indiana Pacers • Los Angeles Clippers • Los Angeles Lakers • Memphis Grizzlies • Miami Heat • Milwaukee Bucks • New Orleans Pelicans • Oklahoma City Thunder • Orlando Magic • Philadelphia 76ers • Phoenix Suns • Portland Trail Blazers • Sacramento Kings • San Antonio Spurs • Toronto Raptors • Utah Jazz • Washington Wizards]
Place: Third in the East
When last we saw the Boston Celtics, Jayson Tatum was an ascendant superstar, averaging 28.6 points (on 48/46/76 shooting splits), 7.5 rebounds, 3.2 assists and 2.6 combined blocks and steals in 36.3 minutes in 17 games since he was named to his first All-Star team. The rise of Tatum and his wingman, fellow former No. 3 overall pick Jaylen Brown, helped make up for the struggles of All-Star point guard Kemba Walker, who missed nine of Boston’s last 17 games before the break with a nagging knee injury.
Few teams can match the Celtics’ skill one through six, as former All-Star Gordon Hayward, First Team All-Defensive guard Marcus Smart and underrated big man Daniel Theis round out a trimmed-down rotation. Beyond them are question marks, and coach Brad Stevens will have to choose his adventure between a handful of untested prospects and a trio of more experienced playoff participants — Enes Kanter, Semi Ojeleye and Brad Wanamaker — all of whom are matchup dependent. Together, they shed the chemistry issues of Kyrie Irving’s 2019 Celtics to cement themselves as serious threats in the East.
Who’s in and who’s out?
Everyone on the Celtics reported to training camp in Orlando, including second-year center Robert Williams III, who just before the break returned from a hip injury that cost him 38 games this season.
Of greater concern is Walker, who was still feeling discomfort in his left knee upon reporting to Walt Disney World. That is less than encouraging news after a four-month hiatus, even if Walker declared himself healthy for the restart. He sat out the team’s first scrimmage and played just nine minutes of the second. The Celtics need Walker to be the All-Star he was through December, rather than the one whose scoring efficiency and willingness to attack the basket had been hindered since the calendar turned.
Over/under wins in the bubble: 4.5 (Over -141; Under +120)
NBA Finals odds: +650
Championship odds: +1800
Smart could be named “The X-Factor”, but his winning plays are so consistent the Celtics have come to expect them. It is Hayward who could lift Boston’s ceiling to championship contention. He has been honest about the enduring pain in the foot he broke six minutes into the 2017-18 season, his first with the Celtics. He returned last season diminished from the All-Star form he illustrated on the Utah Jazz.
But Hayward looked rejuvenated to start this season, averaging a 20-8-5 before breaking his left hand in November. He returned after a monthlong absence, only to sit three games later with his sore left foot. Hayward again regained his All-Star form (or close to it) as the winter wore on, and then suffered a knee contusion that cost him a couple more games just before the season was suspended. He is presumably healthy, save for the lingering foot soreness, and when healthy this season Hayward has been a stud, scoring with remarkable efficiency (50/39/85 splits), playmaking and executing solid positional defense.
The wing trio of Tatum, Brown and Hayward is a devastating matchup problem, as few teams have three elite, long and athletic forwards who all elevate five-out offenses capable of switching everything on defense. Stevens should be able keep at least two of them on the floor at all times in the playoffs, and the Celtics are outscoring opponents by 11.7 points per 100 possessions with all three on the floor.
(All times Eastern)
July 31: Milwaukee Bucks, 6:30 p.m. (ESPN)
Aug. 2: Portland Trail Blazers, 3:30 p.m. (ABC)
Aug. 4: Miami Heat, 6:30 p.m. (TNT)
Aug. 5: Brooklyn Nets, 9 p.m. (ESPN)
Aug. 7: Toronto Raptors, 9 p.m. (TNT)
Aug. 9: Orlando Magic, 5 p.m.
Aug. 11: Memphis Grizzlies, 6:30 p.m. (TNT)
Aug. 13: Washington Wizards, TBD
Outside of the big three contenders — the Milwaukee Bucks, Los Angeles Lakers and L.A. Clippers — the Celtics have as good a chance as anyone at the title. Their ceiling is higher than any East team but the Bucks, dependent on whether Tatum continues his ascent and how his increased workload meshes with Walker’s return. You do wonder if Giannis Antetokounmpo’s singular dominance is easier to sustain than the hope that Tatum, Walker, Brown and Hayward all play to their peaks over a two-month stretch.
The Celtics would have liked to add another shooter off the bench, and the center spot, which should be platooned by Theis, Kanter, Robert Williams and Grant Williams, should also be of concern. Boston will hope to avoid a first-round matchup with Joel Embiid and the Philadelphia 76ers, currently seeded sixth, and the injury to Indiana Pacers center Domantas Sabonis may help the Celtics in that regard. A second-round series with the Toronto Raptors would be a wonderful meeting of well-executed basketball, but the unpredictability of the bubble leaves Boston facing the full scope of possible playoff outcomes.
Yahoo Sports NBA prediction
Place: Third in the East
Finish: Eastern Conference finals loss
More from our NBA restart series:
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Ben Rohrbach is a staff writer for Yahoo Sports. Have a tip? Email him at r[email protected] or follow him on Twitter!Follow @brohrbach