Boston (46-22) are opening a stretch in which they play eight of their next ten games on the road, including a four-game West Coast swing. The Celtics are 4.5 games behind the Raptors heading into play Thursday night, and without All-Star guard Kyrie Irving as he continues to rest his ailing left knee, there does not seem to be an avenue for Boston to overtake Toronto for both the Atlantic Division and top seed in the Eastern Conference.
Still, Boston battled without Irving and fellow starters Jaylen Brown and Al Horford, losing 125-124 in double overtime to Washington on Wednesday night. The Celtics squandered a 20-point frst-half lead and a season-high 31 points from Marcus Morris before Jayson Tatum’s potential game-winning 3-pointer in the final seconds of the second extra period missed the mark.
Irving did fly with the team to Orlando but Brown, who is still in concussion protocol, did not. Horford is day-to-day with an illness, and the Celtics are also still without reserves Marcus Smart and Dan Theis. The four reserves coach Brad Stevens used all contributed and accounted for 42 points, with Greg Monroe leading the quartet with 16.
Orlando (21-48) snapped a five-game losing streak in surprising fashion, upending Milwaukee 126-117 on Wednesday night despite playing without injured starters Aaron Gordon and Evan Fournier. The Magic’s starting backcourt of Jonathan Simmons and D. J. Augustin accounted for 67 points while going a combined 13 for 21 from 3-point range.
Simmons scored a career-high 35 and Augustin added a season-best 32 as Orlando, who had been drilled at San Antonio by 36 the night before, tied a season high with 18 3-pointers. The Magic have lost 12 of their last 15 overall but are looking for a fourth consecutive home win.
Three keys to the game
An expensive Celtics infirmary - When you include everyone who sat out Wednesday night's game for the Celtics, their combined 2018 salaries exceeded $86 million. The starting five that took the court earned a combined $19 million in salary, which is still $10 million less than what injured forward Gordon Hayward is making.
Magic raise the dead in "Zombie Game" - Magic coach Frank Vogel circled Wednesday night's game when the schedule came out because it was arguably the most brutal turnaround Orlando would face all season. Coupled with the frustration of their 36-point loss to the Spurs in which many Magic players said they were simply playing out the string, Vogel reminded his players of their professional pride, and they responded with a grit that has been missing for most of the season.
Who is Guerschon Yabusele? - Originally the 16th overall pick in the 2016 draft by the Celtics, Yabusele has split time between the Celtics and the G-League's Maine Red Claws, with whom he has averaged 20.3 points and 7.9 rebounds. Nicknamed "The Dancing Bear" because of his nimbleness at 6' 8", 260 pounds, Yabusele made his first NBA start Wednesday night and totaled four points, five assists and three rebounds in 18 minutes.
Matchup to watch
PG Terry Rozier vs PG D. J. Augustin - A pair of players thrust into starting point guard roles get the nod here as Rozier continues to prove he is more than capable of running Boston's offense. He has averaged 20.0 points, 7.3 rebounds and 6.5 assists in four games as a starter, and his assist-to-turnover ratio of 3.71 is noticeably better than his season mark of 2.89.
Augustin was given Orlando's point guard position after the team dealt Elfrid Payton to Phoenix before the trade deadline and has averaged 13.7 points and 5.4 assists in 16 games directing the offense. He has a 2.89 assist-to-turnover ratio in that span and has made 48.1 percent of his 3-point shots, an improvement on his season mark of 43.1.
Boston Celtics projected starting lineup
PG - Terry Rozier | SG - Jayson Tatum | C - Aron Baynes | SF - Guerschon Yabusele | PF - Marcus Morris
Orlando Magic projected starting lineup
PG - D. J. Augustin | SG - Jonathan Simmons | C - Nikola Vucevic | SF - Mario Hezonja | PF - Jonathan Isaac
Morris has scored 20 or more points just four times this season, but he likely will get another significant amount of touches given Boston's irregular lineup. He has averaged 16.8 points and 5.8 rebounds while shooting 42.4 percent from 3-point range in his last six games and totaled 33 points and 18 rebounds in three matchups with Orlando this season.
Overall, Morris has averaged 10.5 points and 4.4 rebounds in 14 career games versus the Magic.
Rozier has averaged 15.7 points, 4.6 rebounds and 4.1 assists during a streak of 17 games, shooting better from long range (45.5 percent) than overall (43.1).
Magic center Nikola Vucevic finished one rebound and one assist shy of a triple-double versus the Bucks and has averaged 17.1 points and 8.7 rebounds in 12 games since the All-Star break. He also has recorded three or more assists in eight of those contests.
Vucevic had double-doubles in the first two games against Boston this season before sitting out the most recent game with a wrist injury, totaling 25 points and 21 rebounds. He has 15 double-doubles in 19 matchups with the Celtics, averaging 14.0 points and 10.5 rebounds.
Simmons has averaged 23.5 points in his last four games, connecting on ten of 23 from 3-point range and 47.6 percent of his shots overall. He has been efficient without having a big game against the Celtics this season, averaging 12.3 points while shooting 46.9 percent.
There are currently no betting lines established because of so many injured players with day-to-day statuses for both teams. The Celtics, though, have covered in their last four games against Southeast Division opponents and have covered in five of their last six games overall and five of their last six versus conference rivals.
Boston are also 7-1 against the number in their last eight games against teams with sub-.500 records. They have covered in five of the last seven games between the teams but are just 2-5 against the spread in their last seven trips to Orlando.
The Magic have gone 13-5 against the spread in their last 18 matchups with Eastern Conference teams and 19-9 in their last 28 overall, but they have covered just once in their last five games against Atlantic Division teams. They are also 1-6 against the spread in their last seven at home against teams with a road winning percentage better than .600.
Just when you think a game like this in mid-March would be straightforward as the Celtics chase the top seed in the Eastern Conference and the Magic would just be playing out the string, injuries and a bizarre revival by Orlando throw a spanner in the works.
That said, the game-to-game continuity the Celtics will have with what long-time team announcer Tommy Heinsohn called the "Irregular Five" during Wednesday night's game will do them plenty of good, especially since they are playing three-on-five offensively with Rozier, Tatum and Morris given how Yabusele and Aron Baynes are clearly fourth and fifth options.
While the Magic showed pride in playing spoiler against Milwaukee, it is easy to envision them reverting to their season-long form of misery and indifference, especially on the defensive end. It took two career performances by Simmons and Augustin on the heels of a 36-point dismantling for a victory, and if the Magic are without Gordon and Fournier again, it is hard to picture Simmons and Augustin lighting up the Celtics for 67 points like they did the Bucks.
It will not be an aesthetically pleasing game, but look for the structure of the Celtics to see them through for a 106-99 victory.
The game will be televised locally on NBC Sports Boston and Fox Sports Florida. Tip-off time is 7 pm EDT.
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