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Celtics need to lean more on their starters

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Last night in Atlanta provided another example of an opponent exploiting the Celtics bench to climb back into the game after the starters jumped out to an early lead. So why aren't the starters playing more?

Brett Davis-USA TODAY Sports

A loss is rarely something teams can find much satisfaction with, but failing to hang on to a significant lead can be especially excruciating. Unfortunately, it's become an all too common occurrence for the Boston Celtics, with last night serving as the latest example. The starting lineup gets out to an early lead, only for the over-matched bench unit to allow the opposition to make a run that puts them back in the game. This is a troubling trend that got me wondering why Brad Stevens has been relying so much on his bench.

Boston raced out to a blazing start in Atlanta last night, piling up a season-high 42 points in the opening frame - the most points a Celtics team has scored in the first quarter on the road in 30 years! The Celtics would push their lead to as high as 23 mid-way through the second quarter and took a comfortable 16 point lead into halftime.

Well, we know how that turned out. Atlanta mounted a comeback in the second half to stun the Celtics and hand them their fifth straight loss.

The Celtics have taken a lead of 15+ points seven times this season, yet are only 2-5 in those contests. So blowing big leads is nothing new for this team. Over the past two years, Boston has blown a 16+ point lead nine times.

There isn't necessarily one thing in particular that is to blame for these collapses, but poor bench play has to be near the top of the list. Last night the bench played a combined 86 minutes, but contributed only 30 points. Atlanta's bench outscored them, despite playing only 72 combined minutes. Each of the five players to come off the bench for Boston recorded a negative +/- rating, led by a -9 for Kelly Olynyk, Evan Turner and Marcus Thornton.

Despite a lack of quality depth on their bench, Stevens seems to be under utilizing his starting lineup. The top-20 players in the league this season, based on ESPN's Estimated Wins Added stat, average 36.1 minutes per game. The Celtics don't have anyone on their team that averages that many minutes, led by Jeff Green's 34.3 minutes per game. Rajon Rondo is the Celtics best player, yet he's averaging only 32.7 minutes per game - which ranks outside the top 50 in the league. Perhaps the team is trying to ease him back in after he missed the preseason with a hand injury, but now that he appears to be back up to speed, he needs more minutes.

Nearly all of the players on that top-20 list average at least 32 minutes per game. The only exceptions are Dallas' Dirk Nowitzki and Tyson Chandler - both of whom are over 32 years old and play for a Mavs team with the depth to allow them some extra rest. The San Antonio Spurs are infamous for limiting the minutes of their starters, but that comes more out of necessity due to the age of most of their veteran stars. They also have a quality bench that allows them to do so without suffering a drastic drop off in production. Brad Stevens may be attempting to emulate aspects of the Spurs system, but limiting the minutes of his starters shouldn't be one of them.

Jared Sullinger is having a career season, averaging 21.8 points and 11.3 rebounds per 40 minutes, with career highs in TS% (53.9) and PER (20.73). This isn't to suggest that Stevens should morph into Tom Thibodeau and run his starters into the ground by giving them nearly 40 minutes per game, but is rather meant to highlight that Sullinger should be playing more than the 30.1 minutes he's currently getting. He's only 22-years old and the weight loss everyone raved about in training camp was supposed to allow him the stamina to remain on the court more, yet his minutes have increased by only about two minutes per game over last season (when he spent nearly half the year coming off the bench).

There are other factors that have led to limited minutes for certain starters. Kelly Olynyk is averaging only 25.4 minutes, in part because he's constantly finding himself in foul trouble (4.0 fouls per game). It remains to be seen if his move to the second unit will become permanent, but the limited sample size data suggests Tyler Zeller is a better fit as the starting center. Olynyk could thrive off the bench, where he won't be matched up against the league's elite big men as often, which should help limit his fouling issues. If that switch sticks, his minutes are in the right range.

Avery Bradley is also only getting about 30 minutes per game, but when Marcus Smart returns, he'll need to get minutes at the expense of someone. While Smart will spell Rondo at times playing point guard, he needs to get more minutes without it coming at the expense of the team's best player. Smart and Rondo will have to learn to play more together, which could come at the expense of minutes for Bradley. Boston could also try to utilize their three-guard lineup more, depending on match-ups.

When Boston is at full health, there is little reason for players like Phil Pressey, Marcus Thornton and Evan Turner to be getting as many minutes as they have been. Getting production off the bench is important, but Stevens has to be careful not to rely on them too much.

Boston's bench isn't particularly strong to begin with and are often outplayed by their opponent's bench. When the minutes are limited for the starters, it means those bench players are getting more time against the opponent's starters. If they struggle against the other team's second unit, you can imagine how a team with a strong starting unit would eviscerate them.

Stevens will inevitably continue to tinker with his rotations and is in the unenviable position of needing to develop his young players, while also showcasing certain veterans to build their trade value.  While we may not see as much of the "strategic tanking" that we saw last year, it's clear the franchise's focus is still on the future. On the other hand, piling up heart-breaking losses can't be good for the development of young players and will only lead to a roster full of discouraged players. If the Celtics want to avoid more of these games where they can't hold on to a significant lead, they need to start trusting their best players more.