The Celtics big man is suddenly part of the rotation.
In the final two weeks of 2021, the Hospital Celtics patched together a rotation with young players, two-way call ups, and hardship exception signings. Payton Pritchard was the biggest beneficiary, breaking out of a sophomore slump and averaging over 15 points in a five-game stretch in late December. Romeo Langford and Aaron Nesmith both had chances to start in place of Jayson Tatum. We even got a Joe Johnson sighting.
Now, outside of a few nagging injuries and Pritchard currently unavailable and in the league’s health and safety protocols, the Celtics are healthy. They’ve had their regular eight-man rotation since the new year (January 5) for the last four games. However, Ime Udoka has expanded his rotation a bit. With lineups starving for shooting, the Celtics head coach has instead opted for more muscle and size in the paint and inserted Enes Freedom as a ninth man.
This could be a strategy to limit Al Horford’s minutes in these dog days of the regular season. After returning from a two-week quarantine, Horford played 34, 37, 25, and 34 minutes in his first four games. Over the next four, he’s tapered down 27, 31, 20, and 23. Horford usually plays three stints in a half: starting, bridging the quarters, and closing (although he has rarely seen the floor late in the 4th). Recently, Freedom has been eating up those bridge minutes between the 1st and 2nd, and 3rd and 4th.
It’s possible that this could be team-specific. Both the Knicks and Pacers field giant frontcourts with Mitchell Robinson and Julius Randle, and Myles Turner and Domantas Sabonis. He didn’t see minutes against a more mobile and ball-moving Spurs team.
It’s not as if Kanter has been bad. He averages the second highest plus-minus on the team at +3.0 for the season and over the last three games, he’s a +14 in 10.5 minutes per game. The same defensive issues are still a problem. He’s ineffective defending against the pick-and-roll, regardless if he’s in drop coverage and especially if he’s switching on to quicker guards. But Enes does what he’s always done on the offensive end.
Last night against the Pacers, he scored six points in 7 minutes on an efficient 3-for-3 that included this tough catch and spin to the bucket.
Freedom also cleaned up two air balls with offensive rebounds and putback layups.
Whether or not this playing time is a blip is yet to be determined. Tomorrow night, the Celtics are in Indianapolis to wrap up this home-and-home mini-series with the Pacers. Freedom should get another shot to bang around with Sabonis and then the team travels to Philadelphia to face the 76ers. Freedom will probably see action against Joel Embiid, too. But going forward, who knows if it’s Pritchard that can regain the momentum he was building before leaving for the protocol or if Aaron Nesmith or Romeo Langford get the nod against smaller teams.