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Celtics’ loss to Raptors offers glimpse into closing lineup dilemma

In a close game agains the Raptors, the Celtics showed the struggles that goes with picking a closing lineup

NBA: Boston Celtics at Toronto Raptors Tom Szczerbowski-USA TODAY Sports

The Celtics and Raptors were in the mist of a classic. The teams were trading blows and whenever either seemed to be reaching away, the other responded. With the Raptors holding onto a 4-point lead, we got our first glimpse of the Celtics closing lineup. However, there was a wrinkle, instead of the starters closing it out, the Celtics went with Kyrie Irving, Jayson Tatum, Gordon Hayward, Al Horford, and….Terry Rozier. Out went Jaylen Brown, the team’s everyday starter for the past two years and out was Marcus Smart, a player who frequently closed out games as the Celtics de facto sixth man.

During that final stretch, the Celtics gave up a 12-2 run which turned a back and forth game into a double-digit loss. The loss can’t be attributed solely to the lineup decision; due credit goes to Toronto for hitting tough shots and making key defensive stops. However, it was interesting seeing Stevens go away from Brown who at that point had only played a shade over 24 minutes and had 13 points and 4 rebounds on 50% shooting from the field. His defense on Leonard had his moments though he, along with most of the C’s, were crushed by him in the beginning of the third.

During crunch time minutes, you want to put the ball in your best players hands and allow them to decide the game for you. Having Brown instead of Rozier would have changed the dynamic of Boston’s offense and put the ball in the hands of either Irving, Hayward, or Tatum to initiate the offense. On the flip side, having more ball handlers on the court opens up more possibilities for the offense.

Rozier, Kyrie, and Hayward can play on and off ball and having Rozier on the court means you can use both Irving and Hayward in off-ball action which takes away a defenses ability to load up on the two stars. This is going to be the decision that Stevens will have to decide whenever the team is engaged in crunch time battle. Last night, the result didn’t go the Celtics’ way, but they played a great team who are even better at home, and the results may have been the same at the end regardless of who was on the court.

When asked about why Terry Rozier ended the game over Jaylen Brown, Brad Stevens responded with, “I think we’ll be able to go through this every night and talk about it,” an indication that Stevens plans on going with the hot hand rather than established unit. That’s a dangerous balance with young players who are looking to prove themselves in the league.

The hope is that the Celtics won’t play too many of these crunch time games so it doesn’t become a prevailing theme throughout the year, but it does highlight the differences of coaching young and less talented team where players have to earn their spots vs. a loaded, talented group where the situations may dictate the decision. Can Stevens balance the egos that go with the uncertainty of role? Only time will tell.

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