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How Jae Crowder's absence impacts the Celtics

Jae Crowder's absence will force the Celtics to come up with creative defensive solutions when they confront a trio of elite small forwards in the coming week. AP Photo/Charles Krupa

WALTHAM, Mass. -- Shortly after Boston Celtics coach Brad Stevens informed reporters that Jae Crowder would miss "a couple weeks minimum" due to a high ankle sprain, backup swingman Evan Turner ventured over for his turn in front of the microphones and was asked about the daunting gauntlet of small forwards the Celtics will soon encounter.

"Oh, s---. I didn’t even think about that," said Turner. "Wow."

It was an honest moment as Turner, who had just finished gushing about Crowder's two-way contributions this season, realized that Boston's next three opponents will force the team's small forwards to contend with the All-Star trio of Indiana's Paul George, Oklahoma City's Kevin Durant, and Toronto's DeMar DeRozan.

Stevens wouldn't tip his hand when asked who will start in Crowder's place moving forward, but stressed that multiple players on the team's roster will have to step up in his absence. Without Crowder, who had started all 66 games this season, Boston's lack of swingman depth is exposed. Turner is maybe Boston's closest thing to a backup small forward, though he's utilized in a hybrid ball-handler role with smaller lineups off the bench. The team will not only lean heavier on Turner, but also Marcus Smart, a second-year guard who has occasionally been tasked with guarding bigger swingmen, and Jonas Jerebko, a veteran forward who the team prefers to play as an undersized 4 (his numbers at the 3 have been less than stellar) but has the length that can help him defend opposing small forwards.

"I think it's a heck of a challenge when you look at our week ahead, right? With George, Durant, and DeRozan -- bang, bang, bang. But that's this league," said Stevens. "That's why long, athletic, versatile guys are in such demand in this league. Again, we may be a little bit smaller at times at the 3 and we may be bigger than we've been at times at the 4. We'll see how it all plays itself out and pans out. We've got a lot of good players. It's a great opportunity for them and it's a great opportunity for some of our younger players maybe to take a more pivotal role than they have so far."

The Celtics are hoping to get a boost with the impending return of Kelly Olynyk, which will push their frontcourt back towards full strength. It also makes it likely that Boston will lean heavier on traditional lineups with multiple bigs, rather than trend small like they might with Crowder and Jerebko at the power forward spot.

But Olynyk's return alone won't fill the 32 minutes per game that Boston is losing without Crowder. The Celtics closed out Sunday's practice with both Jerebko and Smart wearing starter green, suggesting that both players got reps as Stevens examined how the team looks with both in swingman-type roles.

Regardless of who bumps up to the starter spot, there's going to be minutes to fill off the bench. Stevens, who last week stressed how Boston's youngest players had to remain ready for an opportunity, said again how this is a chance for those less-experienced guys to step up.

That could mean increased playing time for second-year swingman James Young, who has played only 169 minutes in 24 appearances this season. Rookie guard Terry Rozier had a solid cameo when Crowder went down in Friday's game, while fellow rookie guard R.J. Hunter played extended minutes in November when Boston had backcourt injuries.

Turner offered a vote of confidence for the youngsters.

"I think they’ll probably be ready," he said. "They’ve been on ice. [Young] has been on ice for like two years. Terry had a great game the other night. R.J.’s definitely capable. So I think in the NBA, at the end of the day, it’s just playing basketball. And I think they’ll be fine. It looked like they had a great day of practice [Sunday] and it will be great for them."

Said Stevens: "Inevitably, you're probably going to play one of those three young guys. It may not be the same guy every night but they're going to play most every game. So we're going to need those guys to produce and to contribute to winning. That's what they practice for, that's why they lift, that's why they go to Maine [Red Claws of the D-League], and that's why we have to depend on each other as a team."

Young, the No. 17 pick in the 2014 draft, is maybe the most intriguing young guy in the mix because of his size and experience. The Celtics recalled him from the D-League Sunday in order to get reps with the parent squad.

"[Young] shot the heck out of it [Sunday]," said Stevens. "One thing James has done is gotten good game reps in, because he's also played in Maine. He had a good practice today. I thought Terry was one of our better players [Friday], from the standpoint of limited amount of time the other day and impacting that particular game. R.J.'s had his moments too, so I think we will lean on that [group] by committee and feel of opponent probably."

The big-picture question for Boston is how much Crowder's absence will impact Boston's playoff seeding and Stevens again pointed out that the Celtics still have work to do to ensure any playoff seeding at all (even if ESPN's Basketball Power Index projects Boston at greater than 99.9 percent for the playoffs).

"Hey, we've got to qualify for [the playoffs]," said Stevens. "The same old adage still applies with us: We're not that far from out of it. So, we have to play well. We have a heck of a stretch coming."

With 16 games to play in the 2015-16 regular season, the Celtics currently sit as the No. 3 seed in the Eastern Conference, but Miami lingers a game back and the surging Hornets, winners of seven straight, have surged within 1.5 games of Boston.

The Celtics project at 48.5 wins and own a 73.1 percent chance at home-court advantage in the opening round of the postseason, according to BPI. Alas, eight of Boston's next 11 games are on the road and, based on Stevens' timeframe, the team would seemingly be lucky if Crowder was ready to return towards the end of a season-long five-game road trip out west.

Boston has to hope it can weather the storm without Crowder, while also hoping he returns with enough time to shake off any rust and allow the team to restore its rotation before the playoffs arrive in mid-April.