Previewing the Celtics vs. Wizards Play-In Game

Charles Krupa. Associated Press.

The NBA regular season officially concluded yesterday, and now it’s onto the NBA Playoffs, or the NBA Play-In Tournament for the Celtics. The seventh (for now) seeded Boston Celtics are taking on the eighth seeded Washington Wizards on Tuesday, May 18th at 9:00 EST. The Celtics have limped to the finish line, finishing 4-6 in their last ten games, while the Wizards have been surging lately, in large part due to the efforts of the NBA’s new all-time triple-double leader, Russell Westbrook.

For the Celtics, there’s still speculation about who will actually be able to play in tomorrow’s game. The only guaranteed absence is that of Jaylen Brown, who is recovering from wrist surgery. I’d assume that Kemba Walker will be available, as the Celtics held him out from the final two meaningless games of the regular season to rest. Tristan Thompson should be able to play, though he’s been banged up all season with minor injuries, and also sat out the final two games of the regular season with a “left pectoral strain.” My greatest concern is with Rob Williams, as he’s battled injuries and health and safety and protocols all year, and is most recently battling against a turf toe injury. I wrote about injuries preventing Williams from being the Celtics starting center of the future a few weeks ago, and if he’s unable to play during the most important time of the season, these concerns will only be heightened. For the Wizards, their biggest injury is to Bradley Beal, who played through a hamstring strain on Sunday to help the Wizards clinch the eighth seed. Beal himself acknowledged that his hamstring would not be 100% for Tuesday’s game, but wanted to use Sunday’s game to learn what he could and could not do with it. Beal told ESPN:
"There's no setbacks which is good. I didn't injure it any worse than what it was. Obviously it still probably won't be 100 percent. It is just a matter of managing it as best I can."
In my honest opinion, as much as I would like to see the Celtics rally and finally pull together as a team tomorrow, it may be in their best interest to lose this first game and try to secure the eight seed in a win-or-go-home matchup against the winner of the Indiana Pacers/Charlotte Hornets game. The seventh seed is destined for a playoff matchup with the Brooklyn Nets, and I don’t see either the Celtics or the Wizards doing any real damage to the Nets and their big three of Kevin Durant, James Harden, and Kyrie Irving. The eighth seed provides a slightly less intimidating matchup against the Philadelphia 76ers, who the Celtics swept in the first round last year. Obviously circumstances are different this year, but I still would rather battle against the 76ers than the Nets. This would also provide the Celtics with a slightly better draft position as the eighth seed, so if you’re going to lose in the first round regardless, you might as well get a pick one or two spots higher in the draft. However, this would require the Celtics to win the second game of the Play-In Tournament, and betting on the Celtics this season has been anything but a sure thing.

With all things considered, here’s what I’ll be watching for during tomorrow night’s game:

How the Celtics start the game: The Celtics have notoriously started games slowly during the 2020-21 NBA season, and rank 23rd in the league in first quarter scoring. The Wizards rank 9th in first quarter scoring and score the third most points per game as a team this season. Another slow start in this game could sink the Celtics, and even if the Celtics rally and make a comeback, it very well could be too little too late.

Who Brad Stevens trusts off his bench: I’m very interested to see who Stevens will trust to come off the bench in this pivotal game. During the playoffs, rotations always shorten, but typically a surprise player emerges during a deep playoff run to help contribute to a win along the way. With only one game, Stevens and the Celtics bench don’t have this opportunity to emerge as heroes; it’s now or never. Evan Fournier was supposed to be the Celtics main scorer off of their bench, but with Brown’s injury this never happened. I expect Fournier will get the start alongside Walker, Smart, Tatum, and Williams (if available), but Stevens could get crazy and have Fournier be a weapon off of the bench. I expect we’ll see Payton Pritchard, Tristan Thompson, and at least one of Semi Ojeleye and Aaron Nesmith get minutes tomorrow. But could there be any surprises?

Michael Dwyer. Associated Press.
The Jayson Tatum-Bradley Beal relationship: Speculation is fun whenever it involves All-Star players coming to Boston. And if the Wizards experience even a small amount of playoff success, this could pour water on any legitimacy that Bradley Beal is traded to Boston this offseason. Beal has been adamant that he wants to remain a Wizard, but Beal and Tatum’s St. Louis connection keeps the Twitter GM’s employed. If the offseason is going to come sooner rather than later, the best thing that Beal can do for Celtics fans is to say or do something that makes it look like he wants to play for the Celtics in the future. 
It’s been a difficult season for Celtics fans, and I have no idea what’s going to happen tomorrow. But as always, Go Celtics.