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Reinforcements: as each player develops, the Celtics grow stronger

With clarity coming to the rotation and small ball becoming part of the team's identity, players are finding and growing in their roles.

Mark L. Baer-USA TODAY Sports

There have already been some expected and unexpected developments to the season.  For example, nobody saw Jae Crowder becoming such a dead eye three point shooter, but on the flip side, Kelly Olynyk is finally fulfilling his potential as a stretch big who can shoot and drive from the perimeter.  We all knew that Avery Bradley and Marcus Smart were going to make Boston one of the most feared back courts in the league, but the team having the second best defense in the NBA has been a pleasant surprise.  And now that a lineup has been set after chiseling down the roster's depth to sculpt a rock solid nine-man rotation, you can see that players have finally figured things out and settled in.

However, there's still work to be done and the Celtics are still growing on the court.  Since the January 12th decision to start utilizing more small ball lineups, KO has stolen much of the spotlight as the most improved player of the month.  As his confidence grows, he's made the biggest strides in development and blossomed into the perfect big man in Brad Stevens' offense.  He's shown that the more versatile you are, the more you can lift up your team and after a 1-6, several of his teammates have stepped up and propelled the team to its recent 5-2 stretch.

Here's Jonas Jerebko's shot chart since becoming a main cog in Stevens' system:

Jonas Jerebko shot chart

When Danny Ainge re-signed the Swedish Larry Bird last summer, the expectation was that he'd return as a versatile 3&D guy that could guard multiple positions and spot up behind the arc.  He started to deliver on that promise, but he's also added a wrinkle to his offensive repertoire: running the floor and driving to the rim.

Remember when Jeff Green came back after taking a season off post-heart surgery?  He was finishing strong and smooth around the rim, prompting Brian Scalabrine to compare him to James Worthy in the preseason.  I'm not that excited about Jerebko's new found aggression for taking it to the rack, but it's close.

With the Celtics travel plans to Philadelphia in flux, the story coming out of Saturday was that the delay gave Marcus Smart some time to work on his three point shooting after practice.  Before Sunday, Smart had only made 7 of his 45 3FGA's.  With that 15.6% clip, why was he even shooting over 3 threes a game?  Well, like Stevens says, the more you can do on the floor, the more you'll see yourself on the floor.  Since his knee injury, he's gradually returned to form; his defense has been there, but his offense hasn't exactly come on.  He's handled more ball handling and pick-and-roll duties (including a recent triple-double vs. the Suns), but his shooting hasn't exactly improved.

Against the Sixers, he was on fire in the first half.  His stroke looked good in catch-and-shoots when the ball was reversed and off the dribble.  As the season goes on, that's going to be an important weapon in the bench unit's arsenal.  Stevens likes to have two ball handlers in the game so while it's nice to have Smart get the ball on the swing and penetrate again, if he's able to hit the outside shot, that'll space the floor even more.

Jared Sullinger nearly had a triple-double of his own in Philly, finishing with 8-11-7 in 26 minutes.  Since returning to the starting lineup, he's averaged 10 & 8 over 23 minutes, in the last two games, he's totaled 12 assists.  Conceptually, Stevens likes to play with the bigs above the break, but if he can create some inside out action with Sullinger creating from the block, that's just another dimension that he can use in his pace-and-space scheme.

He had an impressive outlet pass after hitting the deck on a loose ball and finding Thomas for an and-1 down the floor.  It was Kevin Love-esque, but Sully's next step in his evolution could be his ability to find the open man from the post.  From time to time, the ball will find him on the low block and he's been decent (0.74 PPP) at creating space and either hitting that hook push shot or fadeaway in the post, but if he can commit another defender and find the open man, that will further open up the game for the rest of the team.

These are all important baby steps.  For the Celtics, gone are the days when Danny Ainge would try and find complimentary pieces to the Big Three.  Under Stevens, there are no role players aiding a superstar.  Not yet, at least.  Right now, Boston is operating as a team that is greater than the sum of its parts and its parts are getting better and better.

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