Marcus Smart's absence could answer pressing questions for Celtics

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Forsberg: Smart's expected absence raises two pressing questions originally appeared on NBC Sports Boston

If Marcus Smart isn’t able to suit up for Monday’s visit from the Chicago Bulls, the Boston Celtics might be forced to address two pressing questions with the lineup decisions they make in Smart’s absence.

The Celtics listed Smart as doubtful for Monday’s game after he banged knees with Spurs center Zach Collins during Boston’s win in San Antonio on Saturday. Smart limped off the court and, while Mazzulla said he was in good spirits after the game, he was scheduled for more testing upon Boston’s return home.

If Smart sits out, we have two questions:

1. Who shuffles into the starting lineup?

Jayson Tatum declared he wants to play with Robert Williams III more after Saturday’s win in San Antonio. If Smart can’t go, the Celtics have an easy avenue to inserting Williams III with the starting group while Derrick White would simply serve as first unit point guard.

Interim coach Joe Mazzulla appears hesitant to go double big while the team is limiting Williams III’s minutes in the infancy of his return. Bringing Williams III off the bench has allowed Boston to largely stagger center minutes between Williams III and Al Horford, with that duo having played only 39 total minutes together, mostly at the end of the first halves.

Forsberg: Robert Williams is leading another Celtics energy shift

Mazzulla could simply elevate another guard to starter, including Payton Pritchard as not to disrupt Malcolm Brogdon’s bench role, and stay small. But especially given the way that Chicago’s Nikola Vucevic has thrived at times against Boston, we’d prefer to see the Celtics go bigger and infuse Williams III’s defense and energy into that group.

That might mean Mazzulla has to lean a little heavier on Luke Kornet for third center minutes, but 1) Kornet was solid earlier in the season when he played more consistent bench minutes and 2) If, for whatever reason, Kornet struggles in that role, it gives Brad Stevens a month to ponder if the team needs another backup big to better pace Williams III and Horford to the finish line of the season.

2. How much does Payton Pritchard play?

Prichard has reached double-digit minutes in playing time only twice over the past month and both were in lopsided losses (against Indiana and Oklahoma City). We’ve long subscribed to the notion that Pritchard should stick around for deep depth, especially considering the injury histories of Smart and Brogdon. But it’s jarring how rarely he’s played meaningful minutes this season.

Pritchard, whose lone start came when Smart missed the Indiana visit, has played a measly 39 minutes this season alongside Tatum and Jaylen Brown. The majority of Pritchard’s 246 total minutes have been mop-up duty with the third-teamers.

Does Smart’s absence, no matter how short, create a bigger opportunity for Pritchard? Or, if Mazzulla goes big with the starting lineup, do Derrick White and Brogdon still eat up the majority of point guard minutes?

If Pritchard simply isn’t going to play even when there are injuries then it should make you think a little harder about trade possibilities. Maybe his low salary isn’t helpful enough to put him in a deal and it’s better to value the emergency depth. But, in the interest of his continued development, it would be beneficial to find him more consistent time, particularly in situations like this.