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The kids are all right: Celtics young players stepping up

After the trade deadline, many Celtics fans were disappointed that Danny Ainge didn’t cash in some of his younger chips, but after Boston’s youthful bench sparked a Game 2, the future is now.

NBA: Playoffs-Washington Wizards at Boston Celtics Greg M. Cooper-USA TODAY Sports

While the Toronto Raptors loaded up on veterans Serge Ibaka and P.J. Tucker for their playoff run and the Washington Wizards shored up their bench by acquiring Brandon Jennings and Bojan Bogdanovich, Danny Ainge decided to stand pat. There were rumors about possible deals—Terry Rozier plus a first round pick for X, Jaylen Brown and Marcus Smart for Y—but in the end, Ainge and Brad Stevens believed in the kids. It’s that faith in Boston’s last four years of draft picks that has started to pay off that has help propel them to a 2-0 in the Eastern Conference semifinals.

For the Celtics, the future is now.

But frankly, the credit isn't Ainge's. Tuesday night’s win belonged to the players. IT's 53 points were at the heart of another double digit comeback in this series, but the backbone of the win was the clutch play of Boston’s young bench. It wasn’t vets like Amir Johnson, Jonas Jerebko, or Gerald Green filling in the gaps. It was the readiness and maturity of the young guns—Kelly Olynyk, Marcus Smart, Terry Rozier, and Jaylen Brown—that stepped up.

Here’s a great visualization by Basketball Reference on the Celtics plus/minus throughout the game. You can really see how those four players plugged in and played well with the starters. Stevens was able to mix-and-match depending on matchups and counter moves. Olynyk was a strong substitute for Al Horford and Smart/Rozier/Brown were net positives in Boston’s small ball lineups.

In a game of attrition that would ultimately go into overtime, it was their contribution that allowed the IT&D lineup to be fresher and quicker in crunch time.

If defense wins championships, the young Celtics are proving that they've got the mettle to be a special bunch now and in the future. In their 129-119 overtime win, Boston finished with a respectable 104.7 DefRtg and it was again that core four that proved to be the difference. These millenials aren’t afraid of a little elbow grease.

Olynyk, Smart, Rozier, and Brown finished with DefRtg’s of 103.7, 97.8, 92.8, and 71.0 respectively. And it's not like they were matching up with Washington’s 2nd unit. If you look at the Wizards’ plus/minus, there bench played very few minutes, particularly in the 2nd half. This was against John Wall and Bradley Beal, the pair of Wizards that averaged 55 points combined against a very good Hawks defense.

Terry Rozier finished with the most gold stars Tuesday night and has been solid all post-season. Per ESPNBoston’s Chris Forsberg, he doesn’t have a turnover in 128 minutes of playoff basketball and Michael Pina reports that he leads the NBA with a +94. He’s rebounded like a big, stymied opposing guards on defense, and shot 9-for-20 from behind the arc, none bigger than this one last in the fourth quarter:

Here’s Stevens on Rozier:

"One thing I've always known about Terry from the minute I met him was that he was extremely athletic and he was going to compete," Stevens said. "That's never waned. Even when he didn't shoot it that well for a while there, even when he was learning some of the stuff about how to run a team and be a better defender, he's always been there. That's a great building block to start with."

Brown finished with 4 points and 2 assists on some aggressive possessions in the post and the paint, but Stevens also raved about Jaylen Brown’s defensive contributions. This is after Jaylen Brown got his first real taste of the post-season and helped close out Game 1. Stevens specifically talked about Brown shadowing Beal and said, “I don’t know if I’ve seen him guard a guy of Beal’s caliber as well as he guarded him.”

Yesterday, Stevens talked about the effectiveness on the defense on Beal:

"We're trying to make it as hard as possible. He's an excellent player. He's a great cutter. I think he's one of the best cutters in the league. He's great of hand-backs, he's great off pindowns, he's great off flares. You just have to guard him as hard as you can for as long as you can. Try to make it as tough as possible. He's a heck of a player."

That’s not all on Jaylen Brown, but here’s a good example of how JB sticks on Beal’s shooting hand and doesn’t give him a lot of space to get up a shot:

And then there’s Smart. Game 2 was your typical Smart night: 9 points, 5 assists, 4 rebounds, 2 steals, 1 block, one clutch offensive board, one irritated John Wall, and 17,565 Celtics fans cheering his name. We’ve exhausted every word to describe his intangibles, I thought it would be fun to hear his praise in different languages. Here’s a few calls on Smart’s sick move in the second:

GGGOOOAAALLLL, but I digress. I don’t want to forget about Kelly. He didn’t miss a shot on Tuesday and was big in third quarter when Boston decided to go big. He finished the night a plus-11 in 21 minutes, but it might have been this move while he was on the bench that will draw the most raves:

In less than two weeks, the Celtics could be wrapping up this series with Washington and the Draft Lottery will be held on May 16th. We’ll know more about Boston’s next generation and where the team will pick in the draft. For now, let’s be like them and live in the moment. The Irish playwright George Bernard Shaw must not have been a Celtics fan because surely in this case, youth is not wasted on the young.

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