I almost wrote about the Celtics on Tuesday because I heard about these projections that had them with heavy title odds, but when I went to FiveThirtyEight to try to find them, it felt like I was trying to decipher binary code. So I held off to wait to see if anything came of the research I loosely started.
What I found out before Jaylen Brown rolled his ankle in Boston’s comeback win over Atlanta later that evening, was that Ime Udoka had essentially adopted an eight-man rotation during their current run of excellent form. It’s been the starters — Jayson Tatum, Al Horford, Robert Williams, Marcus Smart, and Brown — with Derrick White, Grant Williams, and Payton Pritchard coming off the bench. When former-Celtic-turned-current-Celtic Horford rests, former-Celtic-turned-current-Celtic Daniel Theis fills in.
Only trusting eight players on your team isn’t necessarily a bad thing. Most coaches parse down their rotations during the playoffs already. It just puts strain on your starters during the regular season when every one of them is averaging right around 30 minutes per game. As a group, they average 161 minutes per game. There are only 240 possible minutes in an NBA game, which means those five guys eat up two thirds of the playing time. That’s up there with Utah, Miami, Phoenix, and Cleveland for most minutes played by starters in the league, according to Rotowire.
Udoka said after the game that Brown wanted to return, but the team decided to sit him for precautionary reasons (via ESPN). Second-year small forward Aaron Nesmith earned some non-garbage playing time after Brown left early in the game, but it was all three rotational bench players who saw spikes in minutes.
The team’s defense bailed them out again in the second half, and being able to rely on your defense is a good thing. It’s just the degree of difficulty on offense with Brown and Tatum is so insane that obviously whoever fills those minutes isn’t going to be able to make the kinds of plays and shots that Brown can. Just because Smart thinks he can doesn’t mean you want him shooting an off-balance anything.
With 18 games left on the schedule and Toronto only a game and a half behind them for the sixth and final non-play-in seed, we’ll see how long they’re willing to let it heal. Brown’s injury doesn’t sound serious, but five of their next six games are against teams currently in the playoffs, and now is as good of a time as ever to try to figure out how to manufacture points in a pinch.
The postseason is a different beast, and there are going to be games when one of the two ultra-talented wings doesn’t have it going or is in foul trouble. Their phenomenal defense will help, but there’s no stopping some of the opposition they’ll face in the playoffs.
The 76ers, Bucks, and Nets have guys who can score no matter how you guard them, and DeMar Derozan has been on that level with the Bulls this season. Jimmy Butler can get there, too, but I think a Celtics-Heat playoff series would be a rock fight.
Boston has the third best scoring defense this season behind Dallas and Cleveland, and the reason we don’t talk about any of those teams as title favorites is a lack of scoring. The Mavs would need a historic effort from Luka Dončić just to make the Finals. Darius Garland and Evan Mobley are nowhere near the players they need to be to go deep in the playoffs.
Brown and Tatum are nearing the point in their careers where they can conceivably take a torch and gasoline to the playoffs, but you have to wonder if the rest of the team will be able to spark anything with a flint and some tinder when the time calls. Maybe they can at least find a gimmick lineup or get White to reach back into his Colorado days for a few games a series.
The best chance of making a legitimate Finals run would be if the players not named Jayson or Jaylen went full Spurs supporting cast and elevated their play by elevating each other.
This is a different team than the one I wrote about earlier in the season when Smart was complaining about not getting the ball. We’re finally seeing the cohesion that got them to an Eastern Conference Finals Game 7 against Cleveland in 2017.
While a great defense has broadened their margin for error — allowing Tatum or Brown to miss a tough shot, or Smart to clank a bad one — relying on stops becomes vastly more difficult when your opponents can match you fadeaway for fadeaway.
I don’t know anything about title favorites, but this is starting to look like the team we envisioned they’d be five years ago. Add a dash of depth, and they could go a long way.