The Boston Celtics rolled with a new starting lineup Friday night that we've never seen before.
Not only have the quintet of Isaiah Thomas, Evan Turner, Jae Crowder, Jonas Jerebko and Amir Johnson never started a game together before, it's a lineup that has rarely been used at all. A look back at the regular season reveals these five guys were on the court together only eight times all season for an average of 2.1 minutes per game. While this lineup had a modest amount of success, it came in a minuscule sample size, making it a bold decision for coach Brad Stevens to start this unit in a must win Game 3.
But guess what? It worked!
The Celtics came out flat in the first two games in Atlanta, which allowed the Hawks to bury them early. This wasn't the case in Game 3, when the series shifted to Boston. The Celtics came out firing early in the first quarter, piling up 37 points in the opening frame to open up a 17-point lead. While the raucous crowd at the TD Garden deserves some of the credit for fueling their hot start, this new look starting lineup was the primary reason.
Jerebko took advantage of a rare starting opportunity to set the tone early with a put-back dunk off of a Thomas miss that got the crowd and his teammates fired up.
"Yeah, you know, one of the things coach said to just come out and play your game, you know, the first two games we came out flat and I just wanted to bring that energy at the start of the game and start the game off right," Jerebko told reporters after the game.
Well, he certainly did that, but the energy Jerebko brought wasn't his only contribution. Thomas followed up those comments by pointing out how Jerebko's presence on the floor provides spacing and opportunity the rest of his teammates on the court.
"He is a hell of a shooter, the Hawks and everybody in the NBA got to respect his shooting ability," said Thomas of the impact Jerebko had in the game. "He just gives me space to work and I'm glad he got his opportunity tonight and he wast the difference maker. I mean, he spaced the floor for everybody, he is always in the right spots and it makes it tough to guard when you have a shooter like that to stretch the floor and knock down shots and also attack the paint and he did a hell of a job tonight."
The spacing the Jerebko provides is particularly important to a Celtics team that struggles to shoot even when they are at full strength, but they are currently without two of their best shooters. Kelly Olynyk missed Game 3 with a shoulder injury, and Avery Bradley may not play again in this series after straining his quad in Game 1. Those two represent two of the top three shooters on the team in terms of three-point field goal percentage, so their absence has made the Celtics vulnerable to a Hawks team that is among the best in the league at blocking the path to the paint.
This is where Jerebko has helped. He shot 39.8 percent from deep this season, which was second-best on the team. Atlanta has to respect his outside shot much more than they did when Jared Sullinger was in his typical starting role. When Jerebko's defender has to chase him out to the three-point line, it creates a path for teammates like Thomas to drive through.
Sullinger has been abysmal in this series, so replacing him in the starting lineup is a bit of addition by subtraction. The Hawks are more than happy to let Sully jack up threes, which allows them to have his defender hang back to clog the paint if Sullinger is floating around the perimeter. They can't afford to leave Jerebko alone like that or he'll make them pay.
The other change to the starting lineup was the insertion of Turner. Normally his play-making ability is too valuable to remove him from the second unit, but it's less of an issue with the starters able to log heavy minutes in the postseason. Turner's ability to run the offense allows Thomas to play off the ball more, which improves the spacing even more.
Stevens also pointed out the value of Turner being able to score inside the paint, especially against a top-notch defensive team like Atlanta. Boston thrives in the transition game, but the Hawks have done a great job of limiting those opportunities in this series. When the Celtics are forced to run their half-court offense, they are bound to struggle against defensive-minded teams. The spacing that this new lineup provides helps in that regard, but so does Turner's ability to create his own shot and make plays.
If the Celtics are going to come back to win this series, they are going to have to follow the blueprint of Game 3. They can't afford to fall behind early like they did in those first two games, so it's essential for the starters to come out strong.
This new lineup may not have much experience together, but until the Celtics get some of their injured players back it's clearly the best lineup for them to use in this series.