INDIANAPOLIS — On the eve of training camp in late September, Celtics players shuttled their way through a series of photoshoots on a soundstage in suburban Boston as part of Media Day chores. It was no accident that the quintet of Kyrie Irving, Gordon Hayward, Al Horford, Jayson Tatum, and Jaylen Brown were eventually herded together for what became the most memorable snapshot of the day.
The five players — arguably the most talented on the roster and the presumed starting 5 — were asked to cross their arms and stare menacingly at the camera. But the players couldn’t stop laughing. Even in the best take, Horford and Irving can barely muffle their smiles.
This was the lineup that was supposed to deliver the Celtics to the championship stage. Horford, Tatum, and Brown had nearly willed Boston there four months earlier and the return of Irving and Hayward from injuries made the Celtics the early favorite in a LeBron-less Eastern Conference.
When Boston stumbled out of the gates at the start of the 2018-19 season, weighed down in part by the burden of expectations, nothing was quite as confounding as the struggles of that first unit.
The lineup played 137 minutes together over 13 games but owned a minus-3.9 net rating, including an impossibly anemic 91.1 offensive rating. After a month, coach Brad Stevens had no choice but to make changes, shuffling Hayward to the reserve role that he would maintain for most of the season.
Astoundingly, that group would play only seven more minutes together the rest of the regular season. It was telling, however, that Stevens got a couple of very short glimpses at that pairing late in the season, almost like even he was curious whether that lineup could work again given the progress each player had made individually.
Which is why it’s particularly noticeable that, in Boston’s last two games against the Pacers, Stevens has deployed that original starting 5 as his closing-time lineup.
Yes, the Newport 5 rides again.
While it’s important to stress the small sample size, the Kyrie-Hayward-Horford-Tatum-Brown lineup has outscored Indiana by an eye-popping 42.9 points per 100 possessions in 10 minutes together. In hard numbers, that’ simply a 27-18 advantage but they pass the eye test. And the fact that Stevens has been able to lean heavily on that group in two crunch-time situations might just be the biggest development of Boston’s otherwise snooze-worthy first-round series.
Here’s why: Looking ahead to a potential second-round matchup with the top-seeded Milwaukee Bucks, there is the possibility that Boston could deploy its original starting 5 more frequently in hopes of exploiting matchups. There’s a strong case to be made that it should be Boston’s starting unit in situations where it can’t lean on the two-big lineup with Aron Baynes like it has against Indiana.
But why exactly did that lineup struggle so mightily at the start of the year and why would the team be confident it could thrive now?
“I just think it was probably a lot of high expectations and a lot of pressure at the beginning of the year,” Horford said Saturday after the team huddled for film in advance of Sunday’s Game 4. "I think we’ve been through a year together, we understand what we need to do on the floor, how we need to play. I’m happy to be able to see all of us out there playing together.”
Does Horford think that lineup unfairly scrutinized earlier in the year?
“No, I just think that we all needed to understand how we needed to play and it took changing the lineup for most of the year,” said Horford. "I think everyone understands what they need to do at this point.”
Part of the reason we didn’t see this lineup much during the regular season was that, after Marcus Smart elevated to a starting role in late November, he never relinquished it. Stevens didn’t have an easy way to pair his original starting 5, at least not until the final weeks of the season when early sub lineups offered a chance to examine it in small doses.
Reflecting on the change, Stevens noted how good the lineup had been defensively to start the year but that it simply never clicked offensively.
"They were elite defensively, we just had to figure out how to play well together and everybody give a little in that group and those types of things,” said Stevens. "Ever since then we’ve been starting differently and haven’t had a chance because of our rotations to go back to it very often. Obviously, Smart being out, you’re playing less guys and finishing it small with either that group or [Marcus] Morris for one of those guys.
"I was encouraged by what I’ve seen them do in very small samples for the last couple of months. But it’s very small. They’re all good players. We feel more comfortable in what we’re trying to accomplish, more comfortable in complementing each other, so it makes sense that it would be better.”
It always felt like the Celtics’ original starting 5 needed to find its way back together if Boston was going to reach its loftiest goals. It gives Boston a versatility and an offensive potential that no other combination can provide. And the team has really only scratched the surface of what’s possible. You can sense the players’ curiosity in the pairing.
"It just shows we’ve come a long way, honestly, in terms of our maturity as a group, just our mindset with whoever’s on the floor making sure we’re all giving each other confidence and we’re all in the right spots doing little things to assure a win,” Irving said after Friday’s Game 3 triumph. "When you have that type of camaraderie going into huddles, everyone’s talking, everyone’s feeling great and going out there and executing on the offensive end and defensive end it makes it a lot easier.
"So when you’ve got that group that started off — and we started off pretty horribly this season — and we just had time just to figure it out. Now that the stakes are at their highest, the pressure or whatever you want to call it, I feel like we’re settling into who we really want to be, and that’s just an overall great team. Everyone’s ready to play and it could be anyone’s night and you’ve just got to be ready to support that.”
The Celtics will have other options for small-ball lineups should they need to adjust in future rounds. Morris provides a similar defensive versatility to Hayward, who has thrived in a bench role (and one that Stevens has yearned to keep him in). Semi Ojeleye was called on repeatedly in last year’s Bucks series, including a Game 7 start, because of his ability to joust with Giannis Antetokounmpo.
But maybe the original 5 will get another chance to show their potential. The Celtics yearn to write a positive ending to a maddening season, and the starting 5 earning their own redemption might just be the key to whether that happens.
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