If the Boston Celtics are to advance to an Eastern Conference quarterfinal matchup in this year’s NBA playoffs, head coach Brad Stevens is going to need two of his key role players to step up in a major way against the sizzling-hot Washington Wizards.
The latest Celtics news straight to your inbox! Join the Heavy on Celtics newsletter here!
Riding high off of their recent 17-6 stretch, the Wizards enter Tuesday’s showdown among one of the hottest teams in the NBA. Russell Westbrook, who recently punctuated his 2020-21 campaign by surpassing Hall of Fame guard Oscar Robertson for the association’s all-time record for most triple-doubles in a single season, is an intimidating threat for Boston, alongside All-Star teammate Bradley Beal, who according to The Athletic’s Fred Katz, is cleared to play.
Although Beal is currently dealing with a nagging hamstring injury, he confirmed he will face Boston, on Tuesday. The Celtics, entering their Play-In matchup without All-Star Jaylen Brown, will need significant help from their two rookies.
Payton Pritchard displayed more than enough promise to secure a permanent spot in Stevens’ rotation. After averaging 8.2 points while shooting at a 60.7% clip, including 55.6% from behind the 3-point arc along with 1.6 steals per game in his first week in the NBA, Pritchard expectedly cooled off but then proved all-season long he’s no fluke.
In fact, he’s heading into the Eastern Conference’s Play-In Tournament playing some of his best basketball of the season. Averaging 10.6 points, 3.3 assists, and 3 threes a night throughout his past three games, Pritchard’s two-way game bodes well for the Celtics against the Wizards but the rookie will have his hands full.
From starting All-Stars like Westbrook and Beal to secondary scorers like Ish Smith and Raul Neto, Washington has plenty of explosive offensive firepower in its backcourt. In a recent 131-129 overtime thriller against the Toronto Raptors, Smith and Neto combined for 41 points — the backcourt duo can score in a hurry. Neto (hamstring) will be a game-time decision but after resting the past few games, he could give it a go, considering what’s at stake.
But if Payton gets hot, the Celtics could be on their way to a first-round matchup quicker than some anticipate. Pritchard’s outside shot opens up opportunities for Boston — much like we saw in the Celtics’ 124-108 victory over the Minnesota Timberwolves, where Payton connected on 3-of-7 of his threes and forced the opposition to re-position its defense.
This will open up valuable looks for guys like Jayson Tatum, Kemba Walker, and Evan Fournier and if Pritchard starts heating up, it’ll be a significant advantage. It’s no coincidence the Celtics rookie, in his last three games, is averaging eight 3-point attempts per night, which is a spike by an additional four attempts per game in contrast to his season average (3.8).
Clearly, Stevens is giving Payton the green light. However, Pritchard’s questionable shot selection, at times, reminds you; he’s still a rookie.
He shot 20% from the floor on 2-of-10 attempts, including 2-of-8 and a pair of airballs from deep in the Celtics’ 96-92 loss against the New York Knicks. Payton has to be more careful against Beal, Westbrook, and the Wizards.
From one promising rookie to another, Aaron Nesmith’s start to his NBA career pales in comparison to Pritchard’s but it still led to Aaron leapfrogging Romeo Langford on the Celtics’ depth chart. Still, for Boston to survive the Play-In Tournament, Stevens is going to need Nesmith’s defense to remain consistent.
In transition, guys like Westbrook and Beal — who are averaging a combined 53.3 points per game, this season — can torch the Celtics. However, Nesmith’s speed and athleticism are translating on both ends along with Aaron’s ability to stay in front of opposing scorers, thus making the decision to give Aaron an uptick in playing time a no-brainer.
Averaging 19.1 minutes in May, Nesmith’s efforts on the offensive end of the floor led to 8.2 points per game at a 52.6% clip from the floor, including 32% from deep in his past eight games.
Against the Wizards, the Celtics are going to need Aaron to be aggressive in transition; constantly seeking high-percentage looks and, of course, to be a defensive force on the opposite end of the floor.