With the Boston Celtics at near-full health for one of the few times this season, much of the focus surrounding the Thursday’s season restart was the team's ability to trot out its preferred starting five for only the second time in 2022-23.
But let the 2021-22 Celtics be a firm reminder that it’s not how you start, it’s how you finish. And our bigger curiosity with the Celtics might be the underwhelming returns of its closing lineups.
The Celtics were particularly sloppy in the closing moments of regulation Thursday, allowing the feisty Pacers to push the game to overtime. We’re willing to chalk up some of Boston’s woes to the fact that games tend to be a bit wonky coming out of the All-Star break.
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But Boston’s most common closing-time lineup -- with Malcolm Brogdon running alongside starters Marcus Smart, Jaylen Brown, Jayson Tatum and Al Horford -- has struggled to consistently finish games strong. It’s part of the reason that Boston has played a staggering nine overtime games this season with a 4-5 mark in those contests.
The Brogdon-plus-starters lineup has played 79 total minutes through 19 games this season. That’s not a huge sample size but enough to suggest that a minus-15.9 net rating isn’t ideal given the amount of talent on the floor. It’s particularly jarring when when you consider that subbing Derrick White into Brogdon’s spot -- Boston’s most frequent lineup this season given all the starts White has made with Robert Williams III rehabbing to start the year -- sees Boston’s net rating spike to plus-13.2 overall.
Oddly, the White-plus-starters lineup has played only 21 fourth-quarter minutes in six games this season. It’s a tiny sample but Boston has a plus-34.6 net rating in that small span, highlighted by a 89.4 defensive rating.
In a similar amount of fourth-quarter time together, the Brogdon-plus-starters group has a net rating of minus-3.4 over 27 minutes through seven fourth-quarter appearances, with the team’s offensive rating plummeting to 93.2 in that span.
Brogdon absolutely deserved to be on the court against the Pacers given his play throughout Thursday's game. Boston's starting group hadn't played well enough defensively in the second half to consider going back to the original five in crunch time.
We’re left wondering if the Celtics could benefit from more White in late-game situations. The problem, of course, is that when three of Boston’s point guards are healthy, the Celtics can only reasonably play two of those three players without being super small.
White’s lack of crunch-time appearances is simply surprising. White has played a mere eight minutes of overtime this season. That’s made even more staggering when you consider that Tatum and Brown have now played 40 minutes apiece in that situation. More than half of White’s total overtime minutes came earlier this month when Boston was down four starters in Milwaukee.
In the playoffs last season, much of Boston’s best fourth-quarter basketball came with White on the court alongside the starting group. In 39 minutes together over eight playoff appearances last year, the White-plus-starters group had a plus-22.4 net rating.
It’s hard to quibble with Boston’s play this season in crunch-time games, which was a big issue during the regular season last year. Boston’s 70.4 winning percentage (19-8 overall) in clutch games (score within five points, final five minutes) is second-best in the NBA behind only the Bucks. Boston’s net rating of plus-14.7 in 123 crunch-time minutes ranks second-best behind only the Nuggets (plus-22.2).
Tatum and Brown could break this record held by Kobe and Shaq
But while much of the focus over these final 22 games will land on Boston’s starters and whether they can rekindle their magic from last season, our focus will be more on who coach Joe Mazzulla elects to finish games with and how those groups perform.
Maybe the Brogdon-plus-starters lineup just needs more time to get on the same page. That group, due to injuries over the last 15 games, has logged just 29 total minutes over two appearances together. It’s undeniable that it might be one of Boston’s more talented groupings, at least if the Celtics don’t elect to go double big in those situations.
There are going to be a lot of nail-biters during the NBA playoffs. The Celtics simply need to hone in on the closing combinations that give them the best chance to succeed in those moments.