Kristaps Porziņģis is set to miss 20th game; which Celtics backup could be big in playoffs?

Since the season began, there has been uncertainty surrounding the Celtics’ big-man depth. They had a surefire starter in Kristaps Porziņģis, a reliable sixth man in Al Horford, and a series of question marks.

Could Luke Kornet continue to be viable over the season? Would Neemias Queta show he belongs in the NBA? Would the Celtics make another move?

The Celtics traded for Xavier Tillman, a rotation mainstay in Memphis since entering the league. But after joining the Celtics, his playing time has been scarce. Kornet has held on to his handful of minutes a game, but there have been a few nights where Tillman has shown why he could be the one seeing playoff minutes.

A third-string center typically doesn’t see time in the postseason, but Boston has a unique depth chart. Horford will be 38 by the time the NBA Finals rolls around. He’s been solid all year, but a two-month playoff run will grind whatever tread he has left on those tires. GM Brad Stevens and head coach Joe Mazzulla can’t bank on his body holding up for that long under postseason intensity.

Then there’s Porziņģis, who will miss his 20th game of the season Thursday when the Suns come to town. This will be his fourth straight game missed because of a right hamstring strain following the loss to Nikola Jokić and the Nuggets. It’s the second time he’s sat out four straight games for an injury this year.

Porziņģis has now missed games for a lower back contusion, right hamstring strain, left quad contusion, right knee inflammation, left knee contusion, left calf strain, and left ankle sprain. Six of the contests he was out were for rest on a back-to-back, so the 20-game stat isn’t quite as bad as it appears.

But it still underscores that Porziņģis picks up lots of knocks to his lower body throughout the season. In the postseason, he’s going to get beat up and pushed to his limits. He has yet to make it out of the first round in his career, so everything past that is an unknown for his health.

Mazzulla has generally kept him in more conservative defensive coverages all year, in part to limit how much ground he has to cover and the energy he expends. When they get to the playoffs and need to switch more or start hedging or even blitzing on screens, can he do that throughout the night? In all likelihood, the Celtics will want to push Porziņģis and possibly have to rely on a deeper rotation to keep him fresh.

In most matchups that means Kornet is seeing the floor. But against some of the recent opponents that Boston could see later in the playoffs, Tillman has been getting some run.

Mazzulla’s center depth chart will likely be dictated by opposing personnel in each round, but Kornet and Tillman present different advantages, regardless of who they are guarding. Let’s break down those differences to understand who will get the call this spring.

The perimeter

Tillman has started hitting some corner 3s, so that’s probably the offensive role that will translate most easily to the postseason. But if you want to see the floor in the playoffs, you have to be ready on defense for the switch.

As soon as you check into the game, the opponent has a few plays in mind to target you and you have to be ready. An 8-2 run can flip a game in an instant when the margins are small and that might be where Tillman has a slight edge.

When Kornet switches, he generally tries to give some space to take away driving lanes and give the ballhandler just enough room to shoot. His reach is long enough to make them feel him a bit, but not enough to disrupt their rhythm.

Tillman is getting into the body on those switches and directing the drive in to help, which leads to turnovers out in space that can lead to fast breaks going the other way.

Tillman had several good stops on Collin Sexton in Utah, the kind of herky-jerky ballhandler who can work his way past bigs. Sexton did hit a contested 3 over him and rookie Keyonte George burned him on one possession en route to a team-high 26 points, But Tillman held up well.

Kornet is more effective in deep drop coverage, but is Boston going to use that a lot in the playoffs? He’s a better decision-maker with the ball in most areas outside of the paint, but how much will he or Tillman be in a position to make reads if opposing defenses aren’t blitzing the ballhandler?

Advantage: Tillman

The paint and rim

This is where Kornet’s playmaking is more valuable. Though Tillman is a better low-post scorer, he won’t break that out much in the playoffs. Kornet is one of the better passers on the roll on this team and his feel for how to release a screen makes him open on the roll often. So in matchups where the defense isn’t switching, Kornet is going to be a lot more involved in the offense.

On the other end, Tillman’s defensive and rebounding style might prove more in line with how Boston will play. Kornet and Tillman both have some ability to keep players from getting to the rim, but what happens when it’s a battle?

Kornet’s strength has been his length, whether he is standing on defense going vertical for a stop, catching a lob from the dunker spot, or trying to win the rebounding battle above the rim.

Tillman is all about using force on the ground, trying to initiate contact as a defender higher up while moving his feet and using his hands to swipe at the ball. That approach tends to have better success in the playoffs, since Kornet’s length will lose its effectiveness against potential first-round opponents such as Philadelphia, Miami, and Atlanta. Those are all teams that have bigs who will win the aerial battle, so you need to push them off the spot.

Kornet’s approach on the glass is to lean into the box out and hope he can tip the ball higher in the air if it bounces his way. Tillman has shown he can move bodies when boxing out, whether he’s just pushing or even using a swim move.

When you get to the postseason and every player on the floor is playing with intensity, the guy who is used to playing with that level of physicality has a better chance of carrying over their regular season production. Then as an offensive player, Kornet finds a lot of value working the baseline to get open dunks.

Advantage: Tillman (barely)

When it comes to three phases of the floor, Tillman seems slightly better equipped for playoff basketball. Defenses tend to switch more in the postseason and Tillman holding up better at the point of attack against smalls is going to take away the biggest cross-match concern on defense.

If there is anywhere backup bigs can get exposed against top teams running a shorter rotation, it’s getting cooked on a switch. That tends to be the first item on the checklist when picking a deep reserve to call up to the playoff rotation. So while Kornet has done well to hold onto his spot, the East playoff ladder seems more built for Tillman’s skill set.

(Photo: Bob DeChiara / USA Today)

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