“Mad” Brad Stevens spouted off throughout the game. Mic’d up on TNT, he audibly stressed pace, pace, pace. Frustrated with the offensive performance of the Celtics in an 89-80 loss to the 76ers he repeatedly had to remind his players about the core element of their offense. It was a game where Marcus Smart led Boston in scoring for a significant period, and the team shot 40.5 percent in the absence of Kyrie Irving.
In a timeout interview, Stevens expunged that “we stink right now,” trailing double-digits just as they did last week in London again Philadelphia. Beyond that, the Celtics’ lack of urgency and aggressiveness to get into the paint caught his criticism.
Stevens said few nice things about the C’s performance on Thursday, save for the performance of Shane Larkin.
Larkin, who once clapped back at some overzealous Twitter personality after he flipped a first half -13 effort into a +13 second, is a revelation for the Celts this season. Cast off to Spain after stints with the Knicks and Nets, his comeback effort is reminiscent of Evan Turner’s two seasons in Boston after sitting unwanted in free agency. Larkin even shares Turner’s scrappy social media atonement, commenting on an Irving all-star promotion by the Celtics saying “vote me for too. I think I just need a couple more votes.”
The parallels between Turner and Larkin exist thanks to initial expectations, first round picks who struggled initially to transition from dominant college careers to front-line NBA roles on lottery teams. Turner didn’t lose his spot in the league, Larkin doesn’t have cameras in his face recording his lines of beaming confidence (yet) but the two found success in secondary ball-handling roles under Stevens.
As important as “pace & space” in Stevens’ offense is layered ball-handling to give defenses different looks. Al Horford, Terry Rozier and Smart share that responsibility with Irving. Underneath them, Larkin creeps into the fold at 1.4 minutes on the ball per game. But his 4.36 dribbles per touch rivals Irving’s 4.43 for most on the team.
When the ball hits Larkin’s hands in spot opportunities, it moves.
“(He) can drive the ball,” Stevens said, pausing for emphasis. “He can drive the ball, get into the teeth of the defense, make plays ... (it) makes a big difference. Sometimes you go with your gut on those guys.”
Larkin received 12 more minutes than his average of 11 against the 76ers, partially due to Irving’s absence but also to provide a dose of what Boston needed. His movement opened up an offense Stevens chided for “east/west dribbling,” “staring” and “hoping.”
He joked with Kevin McHale about how boring the game was, saying to the media after “it’s not a fun way to play.”
Larkin represented the antithesis to that trend on the night. His minutes in the fourth quarter helped dwindle the initial 18 point deficit to as close as seven, with two chances to get within one possession.
With immediacy, he answered Stevens’ call and broke to the paint twice, breaking the offensive logjam and points flowed. First Larkin scored himself, then Horford followed.`
These were simply the plays that made it into the box score. Another Larkin cut to the rim opened up a lane higher in the post for Smart to break inside and catch a pass from Horford for an off-hand finish. Larkin’s entry spurred offensive movement, exactly what the offensive needed to pull toward a single-digit deficit.
“As I said to the TV people before the game, Shane’s been a great pickup for us because ... there’s no question what Shane Larkin’s going to give you when he goes in,” Stevens said.
Stevens described an offensive motor, a sense of urgency often used on the defensive end for players who spur the energy needed to move well on that end of the floor. A similar spark is needed on offense, he said.
As with the motor, Larkin’s impact spanned both ends of the floor. After Brown drilled a three then fed Jayson Tatum in the corner for his own, drawing Boston within seven, Larkin stepped in front of Dario Saric and took a charge at half court. Terry Rozier had reached to try to strip Saric, sending the latter out of control and prompting Larkin to position himself in the way of his reckless dribbling.
A possession later, Larkin sprinted to the post and knocked Joel Embiid off the ball, pressing his body into a double team and forcing Embiid lose control of his dribble. Embiid stammered backward, tossed the ball out to the perimeter and the shot clock ran out soon after.
Boston wouldn’t draw any closer, but Larkin set up two Celtics possessions that, if converted, would have put them within single digits.
“He’s providing good pressure on the basketball,” Steven continued. “He always provides that. But his ability to get into the teeth of the defense makes a big difference.”
Stevens’ press conference marked collective disappointment in his whole roster for not running, screening and cutting on offense. Larkin represents an antidote for that complacency and the reason for keeping the full roster engaged in case things aren’t working at the top.