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The one thing that could derail the Boston Celtics this season


Forsberg: The ONE thing that could derail the Celtics in 2021-22 originally appeared on NBC Sports Boston

Two little words are enough to send shivers up and down the spine of Boston Celtics fans. They can reduce even the bravest green teamer to rubble.

Injury report

From Kevin Garnett’s knee to Rajon Rondo’s ACL to Gordon Hayward’s ankle to Kemba Walker’s knee to Jaylen Brown’s wrist to Robert Williams’ smorgasbord of mini maladies, the Celtics have spent the past decade-plus wondering what might have been if not for the pesky injury bug munching on their superstars.

The Celtics’ injury report is so perpetual that Boston has earned the nickname the Hospital Celtics. When the team sends out an empty injury report, there is much mock celebration on social media. Typically, a player will then sprain his ankle in a hotel walkthrough and the team will deliver the bad news in an updated injury report later in the day.

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It’s not just bumps and bruises now, either. The Celtics led the NBA in total player days missed due to COVID last season. In fact, Boston’s total of 157 player-days missed was 39 player-days higher than the next closest team. Add up the total player-days missed by the 10 least impacted NBA teams and Boston had more than them all combined.

Which is why there was a palpable excitement when these new-look Celtics opened training camp this month at nearly full health (camp invite Juwan Morgan had a minor hamstring injury but everyone else was full go).

Then Jaylen Brown tested positive for COVID. Al Horford did the same a few days later and is likely to miss the season-opener. Newcomer Dennis Schroder has missed the last two games after bruising his knee. Payton Pritchard broke his nose late in the first half on Wednesday night’s preseason game in Orlando.

It doesn’t seem outrageous to wonder if the Celtics should make the rest of the roster wear bubble wrap for Friday’s preseason finale in Miami.

Earlier this week, we examined everything that would have to break right for the Celtics to overachieve this season. Asked to compile the reasons the team might underachieve this year, we kept falling back to one culprit in particular: Health.

Look, every team deals with injuries. To the credit of the Celtics players that slogged through a cover-your-eyes 2020-21 season, they have refused to blame all their struggles on health woes.

But after watching Brown and Horford — and new head coach Ime Udoka before them — come down with COVID in the infancy of the new season, it’s a particularly harsh reminder that health issues are going to be a big part of another NBA season.

Here’s one positive: The Celtics appear to have more reliable depth than a year ago when Brad Stevens would look down his bench and wonder who he could actually trust. After elevating to president of basketball operations, it felt like Stevens reshaped the roster with the goal of giving his new coach a confidence that Stevens didn’t always enjoy.

Younger players like Aaron Nesmith and Romeo Langford have played with far more consistency and poise this preseason. Stevens added veterans like Schroder, Horford, Juancho Hernangomez, Enes Kanter, and Josh Richardson — all players that Udoka can confidently lean on, including elevating to spot starting roles if needed. Even someone like Jabari Parker, who hasn’t tapped into his full potential, is a luxury if he emerges as the 15th man.

We feel confident suggesting that, if Boston stays healthy, then this team should be right there with the elite of the East, or at least competing for a spot in the top half of the East playoff bracket.

But keeping the core pieces of this team upright is vital this season. The Celtics need both Jayson Tatum and Brown to be on the court. Williams, with only 113 appearances through three NBA seasons, most definitely needs to avoid the injuries that have seemingly cropped up each time he starts to build momentum.

There are plenty of other potential pitfalls this season. The Jays could stagnate, Horford could show his age, Smart could step outside his role, the young guys could regress in the regular-season spotlight, and Schroder could get caught up chasing his next big payday. The East is better and Boston might not have enough top-end talent to truly compete.

But we feel confident suggesting that, if Boston stays healthy, then this team should be right there with the elite of the East, or at least competing for a spot in the top half of the East playoff bracket.

That’s a monster “if” given the recent history of these Hospital Celtics. But for a team with a leprechaun for a mascot, the luck has to change eventually, right?

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