Necessity is the mother of invention. With Jaylen Brown nursing a sore tailbone, Brad Stevens had to replace him in the starting lineup. With a match up against Anthony Davis, he could have beefed up the front court with Aron Baynes. After resting Gordon Hayward in Dallas, playing him 30-plus minutes as a starter with the Celtics looking at three days of rest would have been reasonable. Instead, Stevens went with Marcus Smart, the most vocal player during the team’s recent skid and the results were undeniable:
Celtics with Kyrie/Smart on the floor together on Monday night:— Chris Forsberg (@ChrisForsberg_) November 27, 2018
75 points scored in 26 shared minutes, team shot 52.7% overall and 61.9% from 3. Outscored Pels by 17 in that span.
It’s a one game sample and there’s no reason to overreact. Only sports radio talk show hosts and all-cap Twitter warriors will call for Stevens to make the move permanent, but tonight’s Smart start (and Marcus Morris’ continued consistency this season) 1) shows just how deep this team is and maybe more importantly 2) how much of a work in progress it is despite already being 21 games in.
After Boston’s 124-107 thrashing of New Orleans, Stevens said:
"We won't be settled on a starting lineup 'til forever."— Celtics on NBC Sports Boston (@NBCSCeltics) November 27, 2018
Brad Stevens discusses the "grit" Marcus Smart and Aron Baynes brought to the #Celtics lineup in their win over the Pelicans (Presented by https://t.co/Av8GdCAzPA). pic.twitter.com/cVeIM745XT
“Until forever.” The trio of Irving-Tatum-Horford has an OffRtg of 108.7 and a DefRtg of 97.9. That threesome seems to be a constant so far, so the remaining two spots remain plug-and-play opportunities. Last night, Stevens pushed the right buttons. The core starting unit paired with the Marcuses had an OffRtg of 131.8 and DefRtg of just 100.0 in twenty minutes. Against a high-powered offense that was previously 8-1 at home, those are numbers that might be worth exploring in the future. For what it’s worth, the starting lineup that opened the year has a NetRtg of -4.5 and never became the offensive juggernaut it was advertised to be.
Stevens noted that he wanted to add a little more grit to start the game and that’s why he included Smart. He was a terror defending the pick-and-roll with the rugged Jrue Holiday running point for the Pelicans and finished the night with five assists with Kyrie playing off ball some of the night. In his post-game comments, Irving noted how well the two play together and tonight’s performance will stoke the “Start Smart” flames even more. If anything, tonight’s 40-minute performance should increase Smart’s playing time from the 24 mpg he’s averaging now.
But like Stevens alluded to, everything can change forever. Gordon Hayward still looks tentative around the restricted area, but if he regains that part of his game, he could easily find himself back in the starting lineup. Jaylen Brown is always going to be a valuable piece at the tip because of his ability to defend the opposing team’s best win (think Jimmy Butler or Kawhi Leonard) and if his outside shooting starts to find its level, he’s a lock to start. Of course, Aron Baynes will continually make his cameos against teams with lumbering centers.
Remember this: two seasons ago when the Celtics were facing an 0-2 deficit to the Bulls and heading to Chicago, Stevens decided to start Gerald Green. Green would serve as the catalyst to four straight victories and Stevens’ first first round series win. He’d later make these type of tactical decisions in subsequent playoff successes. While settling on something consistent for the rest of this regular season might seem necessary to stabilize the team, there might be comfort in its unpredictability, too.