Versatility leads to odd lineups for a spark (Keith P. Smith): With the Celtics scuffling a bit at the end of the first quarter and into the start of the second quarter, Brad Stevens turned to a lineup that we hadn't seen yet this year according to nbawowy.com: Kelly Olynyk/Jonas Jerebko/Jae Crowder/Jaylen Brown/Marcus Smart. That lineup had the potential to go really poorly for Boston. It is light on scoring and isn't exactly filled with playmakers. But there is a reason Brad Stevens is coaching the Celtics and we aren't, as that lineup did work. What the Celtics needed at that point were guys who would scrap, and that is what they got. Multiple guys hit the floor for loose balls, and they pushed the ball whenever they had it. What they lack for in playmaking in that group, they made up for it with shooting. Brown and Smart both attacked the rim a few times, only to kick it to wide-open shooters. By the time that lineup left the floor, they had converted a deficit into a lead.
All of this underlines that while the Celtics’ depth has been overrated at times, it is a versatile bunch. Danny Ainge has built a roster that perfectly suits Stevens's desire to tinker and test things. Stevens understands that the Celtics’ goal is to make a deep playoff run, and to get there he has to know which lineups he can trust. Gregg Popovich has used the regular season as his playground/laboratory for years, and Brad Stevens is following suit. Does he want to go small and play four guards/wings around Al Horford? What about going bigger and playing three bigs and Crowder at guard? What about an all-shooting lineup that features Isaiah Thomas/Avery Bradley/Jerebko/Olynyk/Horford? And we all know he'll use the IT&D lineup extensively to close each half if necessary.
There is a reason Stevens occasionally throws minutes to guys like Tyler Zeller, Gerald Green or James Young. He wants to know if he can count on those guys when it matters most and, just as importantly, who can he trust them on the floor with. It might be frustrating that the Celtics don't have a set 9–10 man rotation. But the Celtics can turn that frustration into elation rather quickly when Stevens breaks out a lineup we haven't seen before, like he did tonight.
Thomas’s 11 (Bill Sy): Twenty-eight points and nine assists without a turnover is quickly becoming a ho-hum output for IT, but what’s important is when a bulk of those points came. This wasn’t one of his best games, but when his team needed him in the fourth quarter, Isaiah Thomas stepped up.
After Thomas fouled Jeff Teague on a ticky-tack call, the once-17-point lead was whittled down to just five. He wasn’t having a great game. OK, he was having a bad game:
That’s not exactly Thomas’s Kobe face, but midway through the 4th, he knew it was Thomas o’clock and time to be a star. He’d score 11 out of Boston’s next 13 points in the final frame coming off of picks, outrunning defenders in transition, and hitting a three.
I’ve opined about the beauty of the Celtics’ ball movement, the genius of Brad Stevens’s ATOs, and the developing chemistry of this team, but it’s so easy to forget how important attitude is in this game. That’s why stars and superstars are so important. It’s not just about ability. It’s ability plus attitude. I try to avoid mentioning IT’s height, but he’s driving on athletic seven-footers and fending off bigger defenders like they’re not even there. This is the NBA, and it’s not easy, but Thomas has beaten the odds and become a star.