What are the implications of Kristaps Porzingis’s calf injury on the Celtics’ season?

What are the implications of Kristaps Porzingis’s calf injury on the Celtics’ season?

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In the last few minutes of Tuesday’s game against the Golden State Warriors, the Celtics looked much like they did near the end of games in the 2022 NBA Finals: When they needed a bucket, they couldn’t buy one.

That’s been the main criticism of Boston’s playoff execution in recent years. In clutch time, the Celtics’ iso-heavy offense is incredibly inconsistent. The offense can get meek and predictable — and sometimes, it only looks good when Jayson Tatum and Jaylen Brown are hitting crazy shots.

Brad Stevens knows this, and this offseason he found someone who was supposed to give Boston a different look, especially at the end of close games.

Enter Kristaps Porzingis.

Porzingis is a 7’3” Latvian who can shoot the lights out and get to work in the post. He can also put the ball on the floor, attack mismatches, and kick out on drives.

Just how important is Porzingis to this Celtics team? These last few games have shown that he’s the difference between contending for a championship and an early dismissal from the playoffs.

NBA: Boston Celtics at Sacramento Kings

Ed Szczepanski-USA TODAY Sports

Due to a calf injury, Porzingis was missing against the Warriors and he’ll miss tonight’s game in LA against the Clippers with an ankle sprain, who were left unpunished for their lack of size and interior defense. Boston had a solid offensive process throughout the game (though they shot a season-high 58 threes), and remained competitive. They crumbled down the stretch, though, and the last play of regulation ended with an awful pull-up three from Tatum.

Such a shot can – and has – won this team games. That doesn’t mean it’s a good way to close.

In overtime, Boston made two shots. Two. They held Golden State to 33% from the field in the process giving up just one three and only three shots at the rim.

With a reliable offensive option and a rim deterrent, they win this game handily.

One of the most reliable shots in the game comes from Porzingis, who shoots almost 70% out of the post, a shot profile that results in 1.39 points per possession. He also draws more fouls in the clutch than any other Celtic and allows only 50% of shots within six feet to go in – top-five league-wide for someone who contests as many shots as he does.

Fast forward to Wednesday’s game In Sacramento, where Porzingis went for 24 points, 9 rebounds, and 6 blocks. The Celtics blew out the Kings, then fourth in the West, without Tatum’s help.

Check out this play where Porzingis takes it to Kevin Huerter in the high post. Attacking a mismatch like that is key to punishing smaller teams. Also, Porzingis is one of the best deep three-point shooters in the league.

The Celtics are 5-2 without Porzingis — who missed four games earlier in the season because of his calf — which is a better record by percentage than their overall record. Don’t let that deceive you: He’s missed games against Chicago, Atlanta, and Philadelphia — without Joel Embiid.

Plus, this Celtics team has enough talent to get them through most regular-season matchups. It’s the gritty, slow games against good teams in which Porzingis’ presence is truly missed.

That kind of matchup mimics a playoff environment. When defenses tighten up, the game gets slower. When every point matters, teams need to deter high-percentage shots around the rim. And when the game clock ticks down, they need an offense that is truly reliable.

Porzingis is not the only player who is indispensable to a Celtics championship. Any injury to Boston’s top six would greatly diminish their chances at a title. But Porzingis’s skillset is so unique to this team, and so precisely what they’ve been missing, that it’s hard to see a championship coming to Boston if Porzingis can’t play.

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