The Boston Celtics own the best record in basketball but have compiled it while rarely having their preferred starting five together.
The Celtics desired five of Marcus Smart, Jaylen Brown, Jayson Tatum, Al Horford and Robert Williams III has played a mere 29 minutes together this season.
Even more mind-boggling: That quintet has started just ONE game together this year.
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Even as the Celtics have embraced a return to the double-big starting lineup, they’ve rarely had their full core available since Williams III returned from offseason knee surgery.
In fact, the only game this season in which the Smart-Brown-Tatum-Horford-Williams III lineup started together was a January 19 win over the Golden State Warriors. Boston’s first five logged 16 minutes together that night.
That means they’ve played only 13 total minutes in five other appearances. Much of that was late second-quarter action when Williams III was first working his way back and coming off the bench.
The encouraging news for Boston is that the double-big lineups have thrived in the 192 minutes that Horford/Williams III have played together over 17 games. That duo has a net rating of plus-26.0 and a meager defensive rating of 94.4, which is 16.1 points per 100 possessions lower than Boston’s fourth-ranked defensive rating of 110.5 overall.
Take away Williams III, who didn’t debut until late December, and Boston’s four other primary starters -- Smart, Brown, Tatum, Horford -- have logged a team-high 539 minutes together over 26 games. That group has a net rating of plus-3.6.
Boston’s preferred five was a wrecking ball last season while piling up 443 minutes together over 34 appearances. That group had a net rating of a staggering plus-24.6, fueled in large part by Boston’s late-season domination that launched the team on its playoff surge.
Much has been made about rivals like the Bucks -- who now sit one game behind Boston in the East standings -- staying afloat despite not having key personnel like Khris Middleton available. Boston does not appear likely to have its starting five fully intact any time soon.
Smart will miss his ninth straight game due to an ankle sprain when Charlotte visits on Friday. Brown suffered a facial fracture Wednesday night against Philadelphia and the team has not disclosed a timetable for his return.
Boston also has five back-to-backs remaining on the schedule, which likely means that Williams III and Horford could miss another 10 combined games to the finish line of the season (Williams III typically sits out the front end, and Horford the back).
The Celtics can lean heavy on the experience that five gained during last year’s playoff run with confidence that, no matter how limited their time might ultimately be during the 2022-23 regular season, they’ll be ready for the postseason grind.