It’s weird that the two teams with Christmas colors that played on Christmas didn’t play each other.
Anyway, with both squads coming off big Christmas Day wins over rivals, Boston comes into the Toyota Center almost assuredly more confident in their standing than Houston does. For one thing, the Rockets are still hurt and might be even more injured if James Harden (questionable with a bruised calf) misses the game.
The Boston Celtics haven’t had the dream season they expected. With LeBron James gone to the West, most fans penciled in Boston as the favorite to come out of the East. After all, the C’s were taking their team that pushed LeBron to seven games in the Eastern Conference Finals (without Kyrie Irving, I might add) and adding an All-Star in Gordon Hayward who was coming off that horrific leg injury from Opening Night last season. Their youth (Terry Rozier, Jayson Tatum, and Jaylen Brown) combined with their experience (Irving, Al Horford, Marcus Morris, and Marcus Smart) meant they had the talent to match up with anyone, maybe even with those guys in Oakland.
It’s kind of mean to look at a team sitting at 20-13 and say they’ve been a disappointment, especially when compared to the team that we cover at The Dream Shake. But the Celtics, besides missing nine games from Horford, have been relatively healthy. Their 6-3 record without him proves that they can handle his absence. They have two separate 3-game losing streaks that are the real culprit, which points to two things: the regular season is tough even for talented young players and integrating Hayward has been harder than originally believed.
Let’s talk about that second point for a bit. I’m not a Celtics fan, so I’m not sure what Boston’s depth chart and rotations were going to look like last season before Hayward’s injury. My guess is that the injury occurred so early that Brad Stevens probably wasn’t 100% sure how he was going to give out minutes. But what happened in Boston after that injury great for the development of the young players. Brown, Rozier, and Tatum each got more of a chance to shine due to the vacuum of minutes created. And Irving and Smart missed extended time as well. Basically, the Celtics had several mouths to feed, especially among guards and wings. But while no one wants injuries to happen, they were a blessing in disguise for the progression of those three players.
Now Hayward’s back, and Boston knows he can help. But at the same time, he’s taking minutes from guys that have already proven that they can fit in this system and win. And now, these young guys aren’t sure where they stand anymore in the hierarchy. Obviously, Tatum is a star. But you can’t go a week without reading some rumor about how Danny Ainge is trying to turn Brown into Anthony Davis or some nonsense (Ainge’s hesitancy to pull the trigger on big deals is another issue entirely). While the AD rumors were cute last year, New Orleans good enough for people to dismiss them easily. Now, those rumors are back and it can’t be fun.
Assuming Ainge sits tight once again at the deadline, Boston’s upcoming summer looks intriguing. Irving and Horford have opt-outs, though Irving has publicly said he wishes to stay. Horford is still a really good player, but he’ll be 33 next summer and probably looking for one last big contract. Can Boston let him walk if AD or another star big isn’t in the fold? And finally, Rozier will be a restricted free agent. After Rozier proved time and time again last season that he’s ready to be a starting NBA point guard, will he want to leave to go run his own team? Will he be happy signing a big contract in Boston if Kyrie does the same thing? My guess is no, which is why trading him makes sense for Boston. Of course, everyone else knows that too and that kills Ainge’s leverage even if he’s willing to deal the Louisville product. Lastly, given Kyrie’s injury history, can the Celtics really afford not to have an above-average point guard as a backup?
Obviously, none of that will be answered tonight. The smart money is on the Celtics gelling as the season continues and becoming a contending force at the right time. They have Stevens and so much talent that it’s hard to see them doing anything but rolling through most of the East. Oh, and they’ll roll through this game too. Houston has little chance even if James Harden suits up.
Tip-off is at 7pm CT on TNT