From a must-read piece by the Globe's Adam Himmelsbach examines Stevens' process of breaking down his roster and figuring combinations and lineups:
"Brad is so smart that it didn't take him that much time to adjust his philosophy to what he wanted to do and how it would work at this level," said Celtics assistant coach Micah Shrewsberry. "Now, it's more that he's back in his element. He's so comfortable now with the NBA game that he can really work on being better, learning different styles or ways to play."
Isaiah Thomas is the Celtics' most dynamic offensive player, so Stevens took special care in assembling clusters that would thrive with him. He wanted a post player capable of hitting a long jump shot after Thomas carved through the paint, and he wanted a player who was dynamic in the pick-and-roll.
That's been a common theme throughout training camp, with the most obvious example being Thomas handcuffed to Amir Johnson as a deadly pick-and-roll pair on floor. It's basketball's simplest play and those two run it to perfection.
This is a little modified double PnR with Jae Crowder setting the initial pick and popping behind the three point line and Johnson setting a secondary pick on Shane Larkin and rolling hard to the basket. Thomas delivers a perfect lob pass and Johnson finishes with a lay up.
But more importantly, notice where Brook Lopez is. He's Brooklyn's designated rim protector, but he has to respect Kelly Olynyk's three point shooting. He's got no chance back pedaling and recovering on Johnson. Working duo's are great, but figuring out a trio of players that work well together is even better.
Earlier in the game, Thomas found Olynyk on the perimeter in transition with Johnson running rim-to-rim. Johnson's reverse dunk isn't a product off a pick-and-roll with Thomas, but it speaks to the natural instincts of all the players. Analytics will tell you how a player has performed in the past, but so much of Stevens' success is building a framework where players excel at what they naturally do best.
Stevens has raved about Thomas' willingness to be more point rather than scoring guard and his playmaking skills are on display here. He finds KO with the defense not set yet. In turn, Olynyk, the former point guard pre-growth spurt, pass fakes to Johnson, drives left, and eventually finds Johnson after a reverse pivot.
A few days later in New York, the Celtics got similar spacing with the Knicks. A pick and roll between Johnson and Thomas opened up a lane for Isaiah for a floater that he doesn't take. This might be a little bit of over-passing on IT4's part, but he finds Olynyk in the corner for 3. Derrick Williams does a pretty good job closing on KO and rookie and sophomore Olynyk might have chucked a three there, but Kelly has a confidence this season that he didn't have earlier in his career. He puts the ball on the floor and uses that Dirk step back to hit the fadeaway.
And finally against Philadelphia, we see the same combo: Thomas-Johnson PnR and a kick out to Olynyk.
These aren't the only two or three players that Stevens has found something in during training camp. There's the defensive front court he's put together with Marcus Smart, Avery Bradley, and Jae Crowder in the starting lineup. That trio is teamed up with arguably the best big man passer in David Lee and the craftiest finisher at the rim in Tyler Zeller. Here's an interesting training camp stat: of Evan Turner's 19 preseason assists, 7 of them have resulted in threes and 10 of them have come right at the rim. Seemingly paired with any big man or shooter, Turner's probing, penetrating style that seems the antithesis of Brad Stevens' offense somehow works.
Stevens has yet to announce his starting lineup for Wednesday, but has said, "they're all going to play a lot of minutes, they're all going to play a big role. Whether you start the game or not, it's kind of inconsequential in a lot of ways." He's right. Instead of seeing the depth and evenness of this team as a weakness, Stevens plans on using it as a strength. Whether the team is playing a grit and grind game against the Grizzlies or are in a track meet in Houston or Phoenix, circumstances will dictate who starts, plays, and finishes. And frankly, it should be comforting that Stevens is using his full complement of players at his disposal rather than awarding PT based on the number of zeroes in their paychecks or the length of their tenure in the league or on the team.