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The Boston Celtics: adapt, survive and thrive

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The Boston Celtics have had to adapt to survive a season hampered by injuries, and along the way they’ve evolved into an even better basketball team

Toronto Raptors v Boston Celtics Photo by Maddie Meyer/Getty Images

Brad Stevens tends to be cool, calm and collected. However at halftime against the Raptors an uncharacteristically incensed Brad Stevens apparently went off at the Celtics locker room. Maybe this was a case of things coming to a head, as this has been a challenging season for the Celtics, and one in which Stevens has had to manage a lot of moving parts.

The win against the Raptors secured the second spot in the Eastern Conference, while a win against the rival Lakers this week will give the Celtics the most wins of any franchise in the history of the NBA.

Yet Stevens can’t think about records or standings. He’s thinking about the next game, he’s thinking about how the Celtics can win, and he’s thinking about lineups and matchups and all the little things that could give Boston the edge.

Out of 49 games the Celtics have had their ‘core four’ of Isaiah Thomas, Avery Bradley, Jae Crowder and Al Horford available to play for just 22 outings. Amir Johnson also missed a couple of games in there as well.

We’ve seen starting lineups featuring Marcus Smart (17 games), rookie Jaylen Brown (7 games), Jonas Jerebko (5 games) and even Jordan Mickey (1 game). Yet somehow the Celtics have dealt with the constant change and upheaval and struggled through injuries to put together a solid winning record at the mid-point of the season.

Boston have managed to see success despite a season where they have struggled with injuries, and much of this prosperity has been due to the masterful work of Brad Stevens.

Shaking things up

With a shattering comeback against the division-rival Toronto Raptors, the Boston Celtics have not only captured but have successfully defended the #2 spot in the East. After a shaky start to the season the Celtics are looking more and more like true contenders with every win they get.

Versatility has been the key, with Stevens using every tool in his arsenal and testing every possible matchup in order to find the right combination to get the win. Besides what was supposed to be the starting five for the season (Bradley, Crowder, Horford, Johnson and Thomas, who have played 21 games and a total of 252 minutes this season), the Celtics don’t have a lot of five-man units that have seen a significant amount of on-court time together.

The next most common lineup after Stevens’s preferred starters sees Smart in place of Bradley. This unit has seen 108 minutes over 14 games, and interestingly this combination currently holds a better Net Rating at 10.7 than the season’s preferred starters, who have a Net Rating of 7.3. Meanwhile, playing Smart and Bradley together with Johnson to the bench—a unit that has played together for barely more than an hour over 18 games—results in a negative Net Rating of -14.8.

It’s also interesting to note that the logical bench unit of Smart, Rozier, Brown, Jerebko and Olynyk has a pretty horrifying Offensive Rating of 87.9, a number so low that even their relatively decent Defensive Rating of 90.2 doesn’t make up for it. However, this unit has seen limited minutes together as Stevens wisely tends to use each of the players in combinations with some of the starters, and as mentioned, injuries have left Boston’s rotations somewhat fluid.

The unit of Bradley, Crowder, Horford, Thomas and Olynyk has seen positive results on the court together with a solid offensive rating of 125.3. One of the best of all 5-man units to see heavy usage in the league, they also have a Net Rating of 23.1. Yet considering the fact that all five players have rarely been healthy at the same time, we’ve only seen a fraction of what this group can do.

Indiana Pacers v Boston Celtics Photo by Maddie Meyer/Getty Images

Missing pieces

At this point a lot of this discussion probably just sounds like numbers, but how Stevens has balanced the rotations is important. For much of the season Stevens has been unable to utilise many of his go-to units, as he has been without key players for several games. Ultimately however, some of this has been positive, as it has allowed Stevens to experiment with a number of combinations, some of which have proven to be far more effective than those upon which he relied early in the season.

Avery Bradley, as one of the Celtics’ most consistent scoring options and arguably their best defender, is a crucial component in many of Stevens’s schemes, so Stevens has had to utilise a wide array of lineups to account for Avery’s absence. Yet some of the most intriguing units rolled out this season have been when Stevens has had to adapt.

The constant lineup changes have also given players on the roster opportunities to prove themselves, and some, like Jonas Jerebko, have made a convincing case to receive more playing time. An article from Hardwood Houdini details how Jerebko has positively impacted the Celtics’ rotations by improving the Defensive and Offensive Ratings of the team when he is on the floor. And he’s not alone, with players like Kelly Olynyk and Tyler Zeller also having positive impacts on specific lineups.

The unit that started recently with unexpected back-to-back scoring bonanzas to open up the games against the Magic and then the Bucks included Jaylen Brown, Jae Crowder, Jonas Jerebko, Amir Johnson and Isaiah Thomas. Until those two games, this group had barely hit the floor together, but after two outings where they dominated in the first frame they have an Offensive Rating of 141.2 coupled with a Defensive Rating of 95.6, giving them an unbelievable Net Rating of 45.7. Of course this effort has only been over a total 4 games and 25 minutes, so it’s a small sample size, but it shows just how many interesting options the Celtics have available. This is also the type of unit that would have been unlikely to play at all had Bradley and Horford not been out with injuries.

Fourth-quarter fury

It would be easy to attribute the Celtics’ success this season to the insane antics of Boston’s emergent star and the league’s resident King in the Fourth, Isaiah Thomas. But just as a king doesn’t make a kingdom, one good player does not make a winning basketball team.

Isaiah has been phenomenal, but a lot of his success this season is due to the support he’s received from the Celtics as team. In fact, an article from CBS Sports details the ways in which Isaiah might actually be damaging the Celtics’ effectiveness in fourth quarters. However, the article goes on to discuss how much of this damage has been well-masked by Stevens’s clever rotations. Ultimately, the complimentary lineups created by Stevens to unleash Isaiah in the final frame are a big part of why the Little Guy has been so on fire in late-game situations.

Even after Avery has missed 13 games, he is still a part of several of Boston’s most common fourth-quarter lineups, with the most common fourth-quarter unit including Avery, Jae, Marcus, Al and Isaiah. But with Avery’s recent absence a few different units have emerged as strong closers for the Celtics.

The small-ball unit of Crowder, Horford, Rozier, Smart and Thomas has seen a fair bit of play in late-game situations recently, and with good reason. This unit’s numbers during the fourth illustrate the type of approach Stevens has favoured in clutch situations. Despite a staggeringly bad Defensive Rating of 121.2, this unit makes up for it with scoring on the other end with a 147.9 Offensive Rating, an Effective Field Goal Percentage of 65.7 and a True Shooting Percentage of 70.1. Loaded with scorers galore, this is the type of five-man unit that is designed to get Isaiah open and clear out the lanes so that he can do his thing in the fourth quarter, and it’s proven extremely effective in small doses.

NBA: Toronto Raptors at Boston Celtics Winslow Townson-USA TODAY Sports

Matchups matter

A lot of these slight but important changes to lineups are due to specific matchups, as there is no one-size-fits-all model for success in the modern NBA. Whereas the grouping of Brown, Crowder, Jerebko, Johnson and Thomas were offensively on fire recently, it’s unlikely they would be able to achieve those results consistently, particularly against more challenging competition. Not surprisingly, different matchups require different combinations to be the most effective.

For example, the unit of Brown, Crowder, Jerebko, Horford and Thomas managed a Net Rating of 21.4 against the Houston Rockets, while the same unit against the Detroit Pistons struggled with a Net Rating of -10.2. So the same combination can achieve vastly different results depending on the opponent. It is also important to remember that this data results from fairly small sample sizes and that we can better understand these units the more they work together.

Adapt, Survive, Thrive

Certainly a best case scenario for Boston is having all their players healthy in order to use very available unit. But considering an entirely healthy team can be a lot to ask for over the course of an NBA season, Stevens has worked wonders when dealing with the rigours of a grueling season schedule.

Halfway into the season with less than half the games played with a full roster, the Celtics have a record of 31-18 and are only 2.5 games back from the reigning champions, the Cleveland Cavaliers. The Celtics have achieved this feat by working together and adhering to the ‘next man up’, ‘plug and play’, philosophy that Stevens has made this team’s mantra.

With Avery due back and everyone else currently healthy, Boston should finally have their full complement of players once again. It has been a challenging season, but it seems like along the way the Celtics have learned a lot about themselves. As the competition continues, the Celtics have proven themselves to be the type of team that can weather any storm and adapt to any situation—the type of team that just might be contenders.

Stats courtesy of stats.nba.com