Celtics schedule analysis: Marcus Smart’s return and other takeaways


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Breathe it in. Allow the lovely aroma to overwhelm you. The scent of the coming NBA campaign is strong now after the league released the regular season schedule Thursday afternoon.

This used to be the time for a bad joke about Larry Bird once reacting to a new schedule by pointing out the Celtics had 41 games at home and 41 on the road, per usual. However, the new In-Season Tournament will change the calendar just a bit. As of now, the Celtics are set to play 40 games at home and another 40 on the road with the possibility of playing extra In-Season Tournament games on a neutral-site court in Las Vegas. Things change. The league adapts. Sorry to all those who needed to change the wording on their entirely unoriginal Bird references.

Five most exciting matchups

Feb. 4 vs. Memphis

The Celtics will need to prepare a video tribute for this one. It will be strange to see Marcus Smart in a Grizzlies jersey. It will be bizarre to see him defending Jayson Tatum and Jaylen Brown. On top of all the sentimental reasons this game stands out, the basketball matchup itself should be electric. With Smart, the Grizzlies have the two reigning Defensive Players of the Year plus Ja Morant and Desmond Bane. They should be one of the league’s best teams. The over/under on Smart charges drawn in this game should be sky high. Something tells me he will be ready to flop every time he lines up to guard one of the Celtics’ All-Star wings.

Dec. 25 at Lakers

Assuming LeBron James doesn’t play forever (maybe he will), his games against Boston are numbered. Cherish the matchup while it lasts. The Celtics and Lakers haven’t met on Christmas Day since 2008, when Kobe Bryant beat a Boston team that entered the matchup 27-2. Shortly thereafter, Kevin Garnett suffered a knee injury that derailed what Brian Scalabrine considers a better team than the previous season’s champion.

Anyway, the Celtics’ history against James is long. In his first game against them, Boston’s rotation included Vin Baker, Jiri Welsch and Kedrick Brown. To put James’ longevity into some sort of perspective, Kendrick Perkins, a rookie on that Celtics team, went on to build a 14-year career before retiring five years ago. It’s ridiculous that James continues to play at such a high level. He will run into a more stacked Celtics roster this season. LA-Boston matchups always bring an intense spotlight. This one, featuring two very good teams on Christmas Day, should be a lot of fun.

March 1 vs. Mavericks

This game has all the storylines. Luka Dončić vs. Jayson Tatum. Kyrie Irving vs. Celtics fans. Grant Williams’ return to Boston after leaving the team as a restricted free agent this summer. Will he go forehead to forehead with Al Horford as he did with Jimmy Butler? Tune in to find out!

More seriously, this matchup is a thriller — and not just because every other Celtics-Mavericks matchup seems to come down to a Dončić stepback jumper at the buzzer. After drawing a $750,000 fine for intentionally bowing out of the playoff race, the Mavericks beefed up the supporting cast around Irving and Dončić. They should be one of the more fascinating teams to watch during the coming season. Will the star duo mesh? Will Irving stay happy? If things go wrong, will Dončić start to question everything his franchise has done for the last several years?

Tatum averaged 33 points, 13.5 rebounds and 7.5 assists per game against the Mavericks last season. He seems to get up for the Dončić matchup, as Brown suggested last November.

Oct. 27 vs. Heat

Regardless of Damian Lillard’s future home, the Celtics should be fired up for this matchup after the Heat prevented them from reaching the NBA Finals. Miami’s roster won’t look exactly the same after the departures of Max Strus and Gabe Vincent, but the sight of Caleb Martin alone should be enough motivation for Boston in this one. Plus, Erik Spoelstra will probably mold an undrafted player into a starter to give Jimmy Butler and Bam Adebayo more help.

This matchup will only become spicier if the Heat land Lillard. If they do, this game will be a measuring stick of sorts for the Celtics’ new frontcourt. Will lineups with Kristaps Porziņģis and Robert Williams be able to hold up against Lillard launching pull-ups from well beyond the arc? Not many guards across the league can break a drop defense like he can. The Heat will only be more dangerous if they add that element next to Butler and Adebayo. Feed me this game, please. It doubles as the Celtics’ home opener.

Jan. 13 vs. Rockets

As tempting as it was to put a Magic game here, just as a joke after all the trouble they gave the Celtics last season, Udoka’s return to Boston needs to be on this list. Unlike the other games here, which feature top-notch opponents, this one includes a team that could struggle to reach the play-in tournament. As talented as some of the Rockets young players are and as inspiring as Fred VanVleet’s career has been, this matchup stands out only because of the coach on the opposite sideline, Udoka, who was suspended by the Celtics last September before they eventually let him go. Despite the circumstances surrounding his suspension, several Boston players shared publicly last season how much they appreciated Udoka as a coach. Tatum even called Udoka “probably like my most favorite coach I’ve had.”

What type of reception will the crowd give Udoka? How much love will the Boston players show him before and after the game? And did I really leave all of the Celtics’ meetings with Nikola Jokić, Stephen Curry, Kevin Durant and Joel Embiid off this list?


40 NBA games I’m looking forward to in 2023-24

The In-Season Tournament

The In-Season Tournament should bring a bit more excitement to the regular season, but the Celtics didn’t get the most thrilling draw for the event with the Nets, Magic, Raptors and Bulls in their group. All four teams could be headed for the Play-In Tournament or worse. If the Celtics advance from group play, they will participate in the knockout rounds, which the league will hold from Dec. 4-9.

Back-to-back situation

The Celtics will have 14 back-to-backs, which is the league average. It might be most relevant to the 37-year-old Al Horford who typically sat out one leg of each back-to-back last season. Boston had 13 back-to-backs last season.

Five of the Celtics’ back-to-backs during the coming season will feature no travel with each of the games in Boston.

(Photo: Maddie Meyer / Getty Images)

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Alexandra Williams
Alexandra Williams
Alexandra Williams is a writer and editor. Angeles. She writes about politics, art, and culture for LinkDaddy News.

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