BOSTON — One of the more curious aspects of the Boston Celtics’ maddening 2018-19 season has been Brad Stevens’ penchant for letting his team play through its struggles.
That’s long been Stevens’ philosophy but it’s been amplified by Boston’s inconsistent ways, both in the micro (in-game, when opponents go on big runs) and macro (sticking with lineups, rotations despite underwhelming recent returns).
It reflects the unwavering confidence that Stevens has in his players but, in the absence of results, it’s fair to wonder if this team simply needs a shorter leash than those past teams that Stevens could let fight through what ailed them.
We’ve seen instances of Stevens being more aggressive with his timeouts lately in hopes of quelling the staggering amount of 12-0 type runs that opponents seem to routinely launch. But Stevens has remained reluctant to alter his starting lineup (outside of injuries and rest, at least) and it’s fair to wonder if time is running out on any potential experimentation that could have been done before the postseason arrives.
After Sunday’s latest eyesore of a loss to the San Antonio Spurs, Stevens was asked directly about the lineup and maintained that it’s something he thinks about often but also suggested that any lineups he’d like to explore are further limited by player availability.
Stevens was asked if there had been any thought to going back to the original starting 5 — Kyrie Irving, Jaylen Brown, Gordon Hayward, Jayson Tatum, and Al Horford — which would offer Boston its most skilled and versatile five-man group, albeit one that struggled mightily out of the gates of the season.
"I think about that every day. But I don’t know if it’s the original starting lineup,” said Stevens. "I don’t know if it’s better rotations. I think you’re always thinking about [lineup tweaks]. And, inevitably, you can make a case for everything. And you could go through every game this year and make a case and look at it because we have a lot of guys that are fairly alike.
"The one thing as we move forward, we are going to need, based on our matchup, to settle on the best things for each series. I don’t know that that will be our starting lineup that we’ve been starting. But I’m more worried about the last 42 minutes than the first 6, so I do think that’s another factor in that.”
There’s a lot to digest there. Let’s start with Boston’s current preferred stating 5 that features Marcus Smart and Marcus Morris with Irving, Tatum, and Horford. That original lineup flip in late November spurred some of Boston’s best basketball of the year and, especially as Hayward and Brown started to thrive in bench roles, seemed to offer the sort of great potential that encouraged Stevens to endure these bumps.
But as the Celtics have fizzled since early February, so too has that starting group. Boston’s starting 5 has logged 162 minutes together in 12 appearances since the All-Star break — no other lineup has played more than 26 minutes together in that span — and own a gruesome net rating of minus-6.7 in that span, which includes a defensive rating of 112.1 (or 5.2 points per 100 possessions worse than Boston’s season rating). The Celtics are 5-7 in those games.
Stevens has routinely noted that the first six minutes of games are not a concern for him. Maybe they should be. Since the All-Star break, the starting 5’s net rating in first quarters is minus-7.9 over 70 total minutes, which includes an anemic offensive rating of 96.8. While it’s undeniable that decent starts don’t always ensure Celtics success — see all the double-digit leads the team has kicked away recently — it simply feels like this team is overdue to explore tweaks that might force it outside the malaise that exists now and potentially restore the level of defensive intensity that’s gone missing.
The notion of shuffling Morris and/or Smart back to a bench role shouldn’t suggest they are at fault for the team’s inconsistencies, in much the same way that Brown and Hayward shouldn’t have been the fall guys earlier in the year. Morris is marred in an obvious shooting slump that, much like many of his teammates, has bled into his defensive consistency. They need him playing at a high level in the postseason, regardless of role. But as Brown and Hayward make strides with their own play — particularly with a much-needed dash of aggression towards the basket — it’s simply interesting to wonder how the team might respond to a re-infusion.
As Stevens is quick to point out, we all obsess too much over who starts games. What matters is how it all works together. But it’s clear, right now, that this current iteration has sputtered and something needs to give.
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Sometimes teams just need a change. There seems little harm in experimenting when you consider the wheels have already come off and this team is grinding down the Mass Pike with sparks flying from both axles. What complicates matters is that there are only eight games remaining and Stevens must balance finding rest for his players before the postseason grind starts.
True as ever, this team never quite makes anything easy on itself.
It was interesting to hear Stevens acknowledge that he’s likely to tweak lineups when the postseason arrives. This isn’t all that unexpected, not from a coach who famously deployed the likes of Gerald Green and Semi Ojeleye in must-win playoff games in recent seasons.
Some of Boston’s best basketball recently has come with two-big lineups. It’s a tiny sample size but, since the All-Star break, Horford and Aron Baynes own a net rating together of plus-39.7 in 26 minutes of floor time, with a glitzy defensive rating of 93.1.
It speaks again to Baynes’ impact, particularly for a Boston team that has lost a bit of its defensive identity while Baynes has navigated an injury-plagued season. It feels like Baynes is going to be quite important to Boston in the postseason, particularly considering the bigs they might encounter.
Finding other two-man units that inspire confidence recently is tricky, though it’s worth noting that the Hayward-Tatum (plus-19.7, 176 minutes since Feb. 1) and Hayward-Irving (plus-13.6, 191 minutes since Feb. 1) pairings have both been stellar during Boston’s funk. It seems to scream for Hayward to rejoin the first unit to see how that group reacts to his presence.
Based on his play, Brown deserves to elevate as well but, if considering his bench impact at the moment, it’s understandable if he stays in a backup role.
Ultimately, there are no easy answers here. It’s fair to wonder if Boston’s problems are more mental than necessarily who’s on the court. As Stevens pointed out after Sunday’s loss, he’s never coached a team that’s solely reliant on whether it makes shots to dictate its intensity level.
“I don’t want to be a team, and I’ve never been a part of a team, that was solely reliant on whether you make shots or not,” said Stevens. “And, right now, in the last month, that’s our deal. We’re just relying on whether we make shots.
"Instead of being a buckle-down, get stops, find a way to win. Nothing better than winning when you’re 5 for 35 or 7 for 35 from 3. That means you’ve figured out what’s important and you’re going to play to that every night.”
Stevens needs to figure out what groups give this team the best chance to restore its identity and play consistent two-way basketball. There’s no obvious, quick-fix solution but this team cannot continue to hope that the arrival of the postseason will trigger the urgency that the regular season has so clearly lacked.
Something needs to change, or the results will stay the same.
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