Chris Forsberg

How long can the Celtics navigate Porzingis' potential absence?

Porzingis' injury will provide a true test for Boston's supporting cast.

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The Boston Celtics did everything they could to keep Kristaps Porzingis upright throughout the 2023-24 season, so the sight of him limping off the court in the first half of Game 4 of an Eastern Conference first-round matchup against the Miami Heat was a gut punch for a team that has obvious championship aspirations.

The Celtics announced Tuesday that Porzingis will miss Game 5 against the Heat due to a soleus strain in his right calf. While the team did not disclose the severity of the strain, it is the same injury that has sidelined Milwaukee Bucks superstar Giannis Antetokounmpo since hobbling off against Boston on April 9.

Kristaps Porzingis exited in the second quarter of the Celtics' Game 4 against the Heat due to a right calf injury and was listed as doubtful to return.

Injury guru Jeff Stotts, who tracks data for his website In Street Clothes, noted that the average time lost for a soleus injury is 17 days, though data is incomplete because teams often simply designate injuries as "calf strain" without differentiating whether the soleus is the impacted muscle. Regardless, a 17-day absence would mean Porzingis would be questionable at best to return before the start of the East finals. 

A handful of key dates to keep in mind moving forward:

  • May 5: Game 1 of a potential second-round series if both the Celtics-Heat and Cavaliers-Magic series are completed in six games or less
  • May 21: Start of the East Finals (with potential move-up date to May 19)
  • June 6: Start of the NBA Finals

The Celtics can lean heavily on the fact that they went 21-4 in the 25 games without Porzingis this season. That included winning 11 of their last 12 games played without him, with the only loss being a 104-91 defeat in Milwaukee with Xavier Tillman making the spot start as the Celtics rested both Porzingis and Al Horford.

With Porzingis missing those 25 games during the regular season, the Celtics have plenty of experience operating without him.

Boston's second-most used five-man lineup — beyond the regular starting group that logged 623 minutes over 37 games — was Horford in place of Porzingis. That group spent 311 minutes together over 32 games overall. The downside: Boston’s net rating plummeted from a robust +11.0 with the Porzingis group to +2.7 with Horford in that spot. Most notably, the defense was 6.4 points worse per 100 possessions with the Horford lineup.

Still, there’s plenty of familiarity within that group. Jayson Tatum and Jaylen Brown have played plenty of playoff games with Horford starting alongside them before he shuffled to a reserve role this season after the Celtics acquired both Porzingis and Jrue Holiday.

The bigger question might be how Boston navigates the 18-ish minutes when Horford will be on the bench without Porzingis available. The Celtics will not want to overtax the soon-to-be 38-year-old Horford, even if he’s by far the most proven playoff big man on the roster.

Luke Kornet, who started the postseason sidelined with his own right calf injury, has only 65 total minutes of floor time in four years of postseason experience with Boston. The Celtics do have some sub lineups that have thrived with Kornet this season, including one group that pairs him with Tatum, Holiday, Payton Pritchard and Sam Hauser.

That lineup produced a staggering net rating of +33.7 in 96 minutes together over the regular season and could be a pairing the team leans heavy on during minutes spanning into the second quarter.

Joe Mazzulla has yet to trot out midseason acquisition Tillman this postseason but that’s likely to change soon. Tillman had 18 games of postseason experience with Memphis, most notably holding his own last season while tasked with defending Anthony Davis for much of a first-round showdown with the Lakers.

The Celtics had good success pairing Horford and Tillman together in double big lineups during the regular season (+21.6 net rating, 54 minutes) but might not have that luxury often in the playoffs. Tillman spent 220 minutes on the court without Horford, per PBP Stats tracking, and the Celtics had a solid +7.6 net rating during that time.

Boston also has Neemias Queta available as deep depth after signing him from a two-way deal to the open 15th roster spot before the start of the postseason.

Al Horford and the Celtics' bench have stayed ready all year long and look to continue to make an impact in the postseason.

Navigating without Porzingis shouldn't hinder the Celtics from closing out a 3-1 lead over a Heat team with its own injury woes. Even when healthy, Miami doesn’t have a lot of pure size.

Things get a bit more interesting in Round 2. Regardless of whether it’s Cleveland or Orlando that advances, both teams have size up front that will force Boston to get creative if operating without Porzingis.

Boston could always go small, maybe even sneaking some minutes with Tatum as center in small-ball lineups. A Holiday-Brown-Tatum-White plus Hauser lineup played only 18 minutes together across four games but scored 47 points over 33 possessions. Still, Boston’s overall collection of talent and experience should put them in a favorable spot against the Magic or Cavaliers, two teams that don’t overflow with playoff experience.

The date to circle, however, would seemingly be May 21. That’s the target start of the conference finals (with a potential move up to as early as May 19 if the conference semis were to finish expeditiously).

If Boston yearns to get back to the NBA Finals — and especially if Nikola Jokic and the defending champion Nuggets end up on the opposite side if they get there — it feels imperative that Porzingis is healthy for those late-round battles. That means not only getting him healthy after an injury scare but ensuring he’s not hindered by the calf when he’s back on the court.

Too many of Boston’s postseason treks in recent memory have ended with laments about the team being at less than full health. From Kevin Garnett’s knee to Kendrick Perkins’ ACL to Isaiah Thomas’ hip to Robert Williams III’s meniscus, the Celtics don’t want another postseason to be remembered for the injuries that left the Celtics at less than 100 percent at the finish line of the year.

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