Monday night suggested there’s one NBA playoff matchup the Boston Celtics particularly might want to avoid.
We’re not talking about a series against the Philadelphia 76ers, Brooklyn Nets or defending champion Milwaukee Bucks, although all of those teams likely would present the Celtics with great challenges. We’re referring to the Toronto Raptors, who currently are two spots behind fourth-seeded Boston in the Eastern Conference standings.
The Celtics’ potential concern about meeting Toronto in the postseason isn’t because the Raptors are a vaunted basketball team. They’re not. It’s because Boston might not have its best players available for an entire best-of-seven series if the Atlantic Division rivals were to square off later this spring.
The C’s were without four usual starters in Monday night’s overtime loss to the Raptors. We know Robert Williams III missed the late-season contest due to a torn meniscus, but the absences of Jayson Tatum, Jaylen Brown and Al Horford are more unclear.
Boston listed injury designations for Tatum (right patella tendinopathy) and Brown (right knee tendinopathy), and Horford was ruled out for personal reasons. But it’s fair to wonder whether vaccination status was the real reason why all three players didn’t make the trip north of the border.
A rule that went into effect Jan. 15 prevents any unvaccinated visiting player from suiting up against Toronto. This is not a rule put in place by the Raptors or the NBA. The Canadian government requires all individuals entering the country to be fully vaccinated.
Tatum, who has dealt with two bouts of COVID-19, has claimed he’s vaccinated. But as Aaron Rodgers proved during the 2021 NFL season, comments to the media sometimes should be taken with a grain of salt. Brown might have received both of his shots as well, but his remark about the vaccine after contracting COVID-19 in early October was kind of left open for interpretation.
“Everybody has their own thoughts about it,” Brown said, per Sports illustrated. “Personally, I have.”
Further casting doubt about the Celtics, as a team, being fully vaccinated is the organization declined to confirm as much. ESPN’s Tim Bontemps asked the team if it would have every player available for a potential playoff series against the Raptors to which the franchise responded, “No comment.”
Yes, Monday night’s game at Scotiabank Arena was the second leg of a back-to-back, so the Celtics simply might have wanted to give three of their more important players deserved rest. But considering it was Boston’s first game in Toronto since the aforementioned rule went into place, there’s a non-zero chance any combination of the Tatum-Brown-Horford trio is unvaccinated.
Can the Celtics win a game or two in Toronto without any one of those three players? Absolutely. A hungry Raptors team needed an extra period to take down the shorthanded Celtics. But the playoffs are a different beast, and being at full strength is imperative to any team with legitimate Finals aspirations.
Boston knows it probably will be without Williams in Round 1, and the thought of not having another — or multiple — starters available for multiple games in that stage should be a bit concerning for the C’s.