Gordon Hayward’s return to the Celtics line-up in Game 3 was much needed and well overdue, but not for the reason you might think.
The Celtics currently trail the Miami Heat 3-1 in the Eastern Conference finals.
Although they have been thoroughly outplayed during the clutch, Celtics fans should not be too down on the result. After all they have only lost by three points, five points and three points respectively.
While it may be disappointing, the thing to consider is what would push them over the hump?
Throughout the season, many people have labelled Boston as a talented team led by the young stars Jaylen Brown and Jayson Tatum. They are also supported by fellow all-stars Kemba Walker and Gordon Hayward. Even Marcus Smart has evolved to become a competent two-way player.
However, the major hole in their roster is the lack of a true big man. Currently, Daniel Theis is the starting centre and has done an admirable job so far. But standing at 203 cm, he is clearly undersized at his position and without a true centre, it becomes detrimental on offence and defence.
Throughout the 2020 playoffs, Boston has been one of the top teams defensively. Despite being undersized, they haven’t needed to rely heavily on rim protection. Each player with the exception of Walker has been capable of switching on defence and guarding multiple positions.
Fortunately, Boston hasn’t faced any poor match-ups up until the conference finals. The Miami Heat are the first opponent where Boston has had to deal with an inside presence, most notably Bam Adebayo.
Against Philadelphia, they faced Joel Embiid who although he is capable in the post, tends to favour the perimetre too often. Likewise, they faced Toronto with Marc Gasol and Serge Ibaka, who at this stage are also perimetre-oriented.
Adebayo is now only exploiting the Celtics’ weakness in the paint as they’ve had no answer for him. He is currently averaging 21.5 ppg and 11 rpg while shooting 60.4 per cent from the floor.
If Boston advanced into the NBA finals, they would be facing either the LA Lakers or Denver Nuggets. Both teams have dominant big men in Anthony Davis and Nikola Jokic who are arguably a level above Adebayo.
Lacking a true centre has been more harmful on the offensive side. The rotation of centres is not good enough and with Theis being the main man, most of his offence has been assisted.
While having capabilities of shooting from deep, Theis has only averaged 16.7 per cent from beyond the arc on 1.6 attempts. Essentially, Boston is playing four-on-five on offence making everyone’s job harder.
With Walker, Brown and Tatum leading the way, they have certainly worked hard for their buckets. They are all extremely gifted offensively and can create their own shot to score in multiple ways.
But their efficiency has suffered, especially from three-point range. The Celtics have the fourth-worst three-point shooting percentage in the playoffs.
Coach Brad Stevens would most likely appreciate it if they could mix the perimetre-heavy offence with some options coming from the post. While Enes Kanter could have been a capable option down low, his defence has not been compensating for his offensive output.
With Boston looking likely to be eliminated, Danny Ainge and the front office will need to evaluate their roster and analyse where they can improve to take the next step. They still have multiple assets in draft picks and players they could use in trades, so it will be an interesting off-season for them.
Overall, the Celtics have the makings of a perennial contender with their core of Kemba Walker, Jayson Tatum and Jaylen Brown.
While they don’t need to have an all-star talent, players such as Jonas Valunciunas or Robin Lopez that are capable in the post will be useful. It would bring a dynamic edge to Boston and make them an even bigger threat.
If they are able to find a viable long-term option to fill the centre position, watch out. It will only make them scarier.