While we wait to see if the Boston Celtics will ever have a fully healthy top seven during the 2020-21 regular season -- maybe Sunday’s showdown with the Miami Heat will deliver it for the first time this season -- here are four trends we’re wondering are real or simply mirages at the finish line of a dizzying season:
Evan + Kemba: Crazy for this lineup
Both Evan Fournier and Kemba Walker have had their health struggles recently, but when they have been together on the floor, Boston has played some of its finest basketball.
In 95 minutes together for that pair, Boston owns a net rating of plus-30.8. That’s the second-best mark in the NBA among all two-man lineups with at least that much court time this season.
Only Utah's Mike Conley/Miye Oni combo has been better (plus-31.4 in 140 minutes) and Oni, it should be noted, is part of four of the top seven two-man units in the league despite playing less than 500 total minutes this season.
Adding another ball-handler/playmaker next to Walker really seems to unlock Boston’s potential. The Celtics' offensive rating is 120.2 with that pairing, which also boasts a 3.19 assist-to-turnover ratio thanks to measly 7.7 turnover percentage when Walker/Fournier share the floor.
Good luck defending this sequence ...
On the other side of the floor, Marcus Smart screened for Jayson Tatum, who was likewise wide open if the ball had come his way. That’s three quality shot options on a simple handoff action because Fournier put so much pressure on the defense by turning the corner and attacking.
Fournier is more likely going to come off the bench in the playoffs. But the Celtics could still run Walker/Fournier lineups in sub groups. In fact, keeping those two paired could go a long way towards maintaining offensive efficiency, especially when Tatum and Jaylen Brown are on the bench.
"I think that [Fournier] and Kemba really like playing with each other. I think that has a chance to have good chemistry, we just haven't seen it that much yet,” said Celtics coach Brad Stevens. "I think they've just played against each other for so long, I think they're intrigued by that as well.”
The players agreed with that assessment.
"He just knows how to play the game the right way,” said Walker. "I've played against Evan for years now. But he's an incredible player. I think we just had an instant chemistry. He's just fun to play with.”
Starter Rob = Dominant Celtics
The Celtics are 10-2 this season when Williams starts at center. His stat line is slightly juiced by the uptick in playing time but what’s really noticeable is how much different the advanced metrics are based on his role.
In 12 games as a starter, Williams has a plus-9.4 net rating during his floor time. That plummets to minus-2.6 when he comes off the bench. His assist numbers leap off the page as a starter -- including a 3.17 assist-to-turnover ratio and a 17.4 assist percentage -- and both those numbers plummet (1.35 AST/TO; 11.7 AST%) as a reserve.
Stevens is going to be tempted in the postseason to start Thompson against bigger centers who might give Williams trouble. Watching Williams struggle to stay out of foul trouble against Joel Embiid a few weeks back didn't inspire great confidence in those situations.
But Boston’s offense is so much more robust with Williams in a starting role. He can facilitate in the high post and then draws so much attention on his rim runs. Thompson makes good things happen with his solid screens and offensive rebounding but the Celtics might have to just deal with Williams’ defensive woes in certain matchups because of the jolt the offense gets.
Ultimately, Williams and Thompson are going to largely split the available 48 minutes at the center spot but Williams’ presence really unlocks Boston’s offensive potential.
Boston's high-efficiency bench
In the four games since Aaron Nesmith cemented himself as a key presence, the Celtics have gotten some extremely efficient play from their reserves.
Don’t get hung up on the overall output: Boston’s bench is only 17th in the NBA in scoring (36.3 points per game) over that short span. But it’s the efficiency that jumps off the page. The Celtics’ reserves are tops in the NBA in both field goal (56.1%) and 3-point percentage (53.2%) in that span.
Both Nesmith and Payton Pritchard have been ultra efficient. In fact, they're having a Walker/Fournier-like impact during their time together. In 62 minutes sharing the floor over the past four games, Boston has a net rating of plus-30.2 with the Nesmith/Pritchard combo together. That includes a dazzling offensive rating of 132.5.
Boston’s second-unit offense absolutely sizzles with ball movement and a barrage of 3-point shots when those two are together. Even as the rotation tightens in the postseason, Boston will need the occasional offensive jolt from those two.
Smart: Defense + playmaking focus
These haven't been the finest couple of weeks for Smart, who got suspended for barking at officials during Boston’s head-slapping loss to the Oklahoma City Thunder then got ejected for a below-the-belt shot in a game the Celtics needed every bit of defensive energy while falling to the Portland Trail Blazers.
When Smart has been on the court lately, he’s been an exquisite playmaker. Just start with his assist total in the past three games: 12, eight, and nine. His assist percentage is a robust 28.2% in that span. For context, Walker tops the Celtics this season with a 23.8 assist percentage with Smart close behind at 23.
Not coincidentally, Boston’s offensive rating is 123.8 in Smart’s minutes over those three games -- or nearly 10 points above what Boston typically averages when he’s on the court this season.
When healthy, the Celtics are at their best when Smart throttles down his shot attempts and lets his natural talents as a defender and playmaker take over. There undoubtedly are going to be times where teams either challenge him to shoot or Boston needs a spark and Smart will not be shy about firing away.
But the Orlando game showed that Smart doesn’t need to score to be effective. His career-best streak of 14 straight games in double figures ended with a 1-for-6 shooting night against Orlando and yet Smart was plus-28 in 30 minutes because he put a premium on playmaking.
The Celtics’ ceiling is simply higher whenever Smart makes defense and playmaking his priorities.