The preseason favorite to win the Eastern Conference, the Cs spent a good portion of the regular season spinning in fourth place. They lost games they had no business losing and inexplicably failed to compete in others. Universally hailed as the strongest team mentally in the league last season, this version of the Cs dissolved in a dizzying haze of passive aggressive finger-pointing, slumped shoulders, and cryptic quotes.
The Celtics are playing their best basketball right as the postseason dawns on the Garden parquet this afternoon for their first-round series against the Pacers. Over the last month, they won gut-check games on the road and took care of business at home. That the Cs are even hosting a first-round series is testament to their strong play down the stretch, including a pair of wins over Indiana.
For Celtics Jaylen Brown, starting not a concern
Paul Flannerys signature Sunday Shootaround column has returned. Every Sunday morning, grab a cup of coffee, sit back, and take a look back at the week that was in the NBA.
You are going to play your best players as much as you can, but at the same time there is a fine line because you have to be fresh, said Stevens. You have to make sure you maximize your depth and maximize your bench and give those guys appropriate breaks. The TV timeouts are a little longer and generally, obviously, people have been building up to play more minutes as the season has gone on, but at the same time, depth and being good when your depth is in the game is really important.
March 31: The Pacers lost their star and found a unified spiritMarch 24: The Nuggets are the NBAs anachronistic contenderMarch 17: DeAaron Fox is fast and moving in the right directionMarch 10: The case for James Harden as the NBAs MVPMarch 3: Damian Lillard talks fatherhood, the Blazers, and perspectiveFeb. 24: The NBAs realest drama remains on the courtFeb. 17: The improved but not new Blake GriffinFrom the archives (2017): The Giannis Antetokounmpo dream becomes reality
Boston Celtics' Semi Ojeleye plays against the Detroit Pistons during the first half of an NBA basketball game in Boston, Wednesday, Feb. 13, 2019. (AP Photo/Michael Dwyer)
BOSTON — Brad Stevens likes to be coy when it comes to questions about his lineups. When he was asked about who might start in Marcus Smarts place tomorrow, he said Yeah. I think its somewhere down to 11 guys.
I’m feeling good. It’s Christmas time, said Brown. This is the best time of the year, for sure. My back has been getting better every day. There’s a little bit of tightness, but the more and more I get treatment, the more and more the days pass, I don’t even feel it, so I’ll be fine.
Hes not going to tell us anything until he has to, which will be about 20 minutes before tip off. Until then, we, and the Indiana Pacers, will have to guess who the Boston Celtics will start alongside their expected group of Kyrie Irving, Jayson Tatum, Al Horford, and Aron Baynes.
And Brown, who may finally be emerging from his bout with a sore lower back, doesnt seem to mind. Hes been a major part of the benchs resurgence, and has formed a nice two-way chemistry with Gordon Hayward.
Guessing what Stevens is planning at this point is an exercise in guessing zigs and zags. Is this a time for conventional thinking, or is this a time for some galaxy-brain strategizing?
Many teams increase the minutes of their main rotational players and shorten rotations at this time of year, though Stevens sounds like hes still in the process of working those details out.
There are arguments to be made for both. There is lineup data that supports Jaylen Brown or Gordon Hayward stepping into the starting role. Neither is fussed about which role they play, nor should they be at this point. Hayward flat out said I dont care when he was asked about coming off the bench.
In the playoffs its different. Matchups, everything comes into consideration, so at the end of the day it just becomes basketball, he said. We just want to be on the floor. It doesnt matter—in the playoffs it doesnt matter if youre starting, coming off the bench, or sweeping the floor. You just want to be out there.
There are any number of possibilities for Marcus Smarts replacement in the starting lineup, with perhaps the two most logical choices Jaylen Brown and Terry Rozier.
Matchups is the key word in this examination. Not only what the right matchup is in the starting five, but whats the right combination of guys for 48 minutes? Thats why Stevens says starting isnt that important to me. How we rotate is probably more important to me.
Hes also a natural to replicate Smarts defensive role, especially where taking on a scorer like Indianas Bojan Bogdanovic is concerned.
The best combinations of players might include a wildcard entry into the mix. When the Chicago Bulls stormed out to a 2-0 lead in the opening round of the 2017 playoffs, Stevens turned to Gerald Green as a starter and Boston won the next four games. Last season, Semi Ojeleye stepped in to help Boston win two of the final three games against the Milwaukee Bucks.
I do think there are times where there are unique matchups that really call for maybe somebody thats just new, Stevens said, bringing up Ojeleyes minutes against Giannis Antetokounmpo. We didnt play him a ton on him. He played him a lot, but not every minute he was in. But it bought us 10 minutes without somebody else fouling him. The bottom line is hes gonna get fouled, and if youre going to have one of the guys youre really going to count on to score at the end of the game on him, then youre risking that.
Ojeleye can be the same wildcard that steps into the Indiana series. Bojan Bogdanovic, Indianas primary scorer since Victor Oladipo was lost for the season, was Smarts primary defensive matchup. Starting Ojeleye challenges Bogdanovic with a strong defender and it buys Boston those same 10 minutes without Hayward or Brown racking up fouls that sap their minutes or aggressiveness. Ojeleye says hes ready for whatever gets thrown at him.
I dont really believe in pressure, he said. I think if you prepare, then it kind of just takes all of that away because youve already put in the work everything else is going to play out.
This isnt the time for experimentation, Ojeleye is a proven playoff performer and a Game 1 start is the time to see if the strategy works. If it doesnt, then he can be pulled at any time and the Celtic can move to the next option.
You look for what works best against the team youre playing, or what do you think will work best, Stevens told MassLive. That can change because they can tweak too. And sometimes what you put on paper isnt as successful as what you put on the floor.”
The playoffs are also unique not only because they potentially afford new players new chances. They are also structured differently, so some of the regular season rules dont apply. Coaches like Stevens have different options available to them, like reduced travel and longer breaks, which lets him ride his starters a bit longer.
You are going to play your best players as much as you can, but at the same time there is a fine line because you have to be fresh, Stevens said. You have to make sure you maximize your depth and maximize your bench and give those guys appropriate breaks. The TV timeouts are a little longer and generally, obviously, people have been building up to play more minutes as the season has gone on.
A few Ojeleye minutes could be the key to maximizing the bench. Even short stints that allow Hayward and Brown to check in together and test the Pacers bench will be valuable. Saving those two for crunch time minutes by having Semi eat up some minutes while bodying Bogdanovic will be valuable. Which means, once again, Ojeleye could go from regular season DNPs to playoffs starter.
I think Semi is so valuable to our team. And well see how it all plays itself out, Stevens says. Theres always something. You just have to be on your toes and everybodys gotta be ready.