As A. Sherrod Blakely points out, the Celtics lead by an average of 7.3 points after the first quarter whether it was in Madrid, Milan, or New York. After Boston's final preseason game against the Sixers, Brad Stevens talked about the importance of getting off to a good start:
"You have to start games well," Stevens said. "You have to start the third quarter well and you have to be able to finish quarters. There are moments that we're going to find out if a starting group that starts games well starts third quarters well. And if not, we'll make the changes swiftly because we can."
It's the preseason and the starting lineup of Marcus Smart, Avery Bradley, Jae Crowder, David Lee, and Tyler Zeller was only featured four out of the seven games with two of them coming against European competition. (Unfortunately, NBA.com/stats does not have lineup data before the regular season.) With those qualifications in mind, here are the defensive, offensive, and net ratings for the Celtics' preaseason games by quarter:
|Offensive rating||Defensive rating||Net rating|
It's not surprising that a starting lineup featuring Marcus Smart, Avery Bradley, and Jae Crowder would be Boston's best defensively, but they're also the Celtics' most potent offense. The team averaged a 68.8 assist percentage on made field goals in the first quarter, best of any quarter, in part to Smart's emergence as a point guard and David Lee's playmaking skills as a point forward.
Any concern that that lineup won't generate points can be tabled until the season starts because there are still a lot of question marks with that starting five, but we do know that they will bring it on D. With all due respect to Zeller and Lee, that trio of Smart, Bradley, and Crowder are going to be a force this season. No team in either conference can match the defensive intensity of that three-headed monster. It's a lineup specifically geared to wreak havoc on a league moving more and more to wing and perimeter play.
We've waxed poetic about Brad Stevens' offensive system with flowery terms like "pace-and-space" and "read-and-react," but what's gone mostly unnoticed during training camp has been Boston's defense. The Celtics were 5th in opponents' turnovers, 2nd in opponents' FG%, and 4th in opponents' points allowed. This is a team that thrives on contesting shots and generating steals without, yes, a legit rim protector.
Stevens said plainly that the starting lineup must get the team off to a good start, but I kind of prefer Jae Crowder's "punching first" analogy. He gets it; Crowder may not put up numbers, but he understands the importance of attitude and mindset going into a game. I was ecstatic when he signed a 5-year, $35M contract to play in Boston. He may not be a statistical darling to fantasy players, but the Celtics were demonstrably better after he came over in the Rajon Rondo trade last season.
I'm sure there was some consideration to adding Isaiah Thomas' firepower at the tip or utilizing Evan Turner's versatility like last year, but your starting five don't just simply start the game for you. They're tone setters and identity makers and bench motivators and teams are going to know right off the bat what they're dealing with when they play the Celtics.
And it's not like the bench is going to hurt this team. If you've been paying attention during training, every player to a man has shown an ability to contribute on any given night:
The Celtics had 10 players average between 7.2 points and 10.2 points during the preseason. An 11th, Isaiah Thomas (14.0) led the way.— Jay King (@ByJayKing) October 24, 2015
That's the evenness of a Brad Steveness team. Stevens has talked about using a 10-man rotation when the season starts on Wednesday, but he could conceivably play all fifteen from the Swiss Army knife that is Boston's bench. There's the spark plug and 6th Man of the Year candidate in Thomas. Defensively, they can maintain the pressure with ball hawks Terry Rozier, Jonas Jerebko, Jordan Mickey, and Amir Johnson. Turner and Kelly Olynyk are jacks-of-all-trades. Jared Sullinger and R.J. Hunter are specialists of sorts, either battling in the trenches or stretching the floor.
After Philadelphia on Wednesday, the season continues with match ups with Toronto, San Antonio, Indiana, and Washington, all teams that boast formidable back courts that Smart, Bradley, and Crowder will have to contain. It's a good stretch of games to see if the hype is real after many analytics studies have predicted a 45+ wins season for this team, but more important than the wins and losses will be how this team defines itself in its rebuild.
Critics have joked that Danny Ainge has assembled a team made up of everybody's 7th best player and joked about his roster of meh and that might all be true, but as this season progresses and the team enters the trade market and free agency, what will be important is how this team represents itself on the floor and that starts with Smart, Bradley, and Crowder.