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For a crowded Celtics roster, the culture of staying ready still thrives

From small ball to using non-traditional players at the point, integrating zones to defending bigs with Marcus Smart, Brad Stevens shook up the utilization of talent on the Celtics. Most of all, he made everybody feel like they could be needed at any moment.

NBA: New Orleans Pelicans at Boston Celtics Greg M. Cooper-USA TODAY Sports

Marcus Morris received little attention on the Celtics’ wing-loaded roster entering the season. Where would he play with Gordon Hayward, Jaylen Brown and Jayson Tatum receiving the majority of minutes in front of him? After some early growing pains, he’s been arguably the Celtics’ most consistent player so far and now part of Boston’s starting lineup again, with Hayward integrated into the second unit.

Concerns over playing time could have pertained more fittingly to Semi Ojeleye. Unproven — despite flashing potential in the playoffs against Milwaukee — he looked up at four wings in front of him to begin his sophomore campaign. As expected, he has averaged five fewer minutes per game in 2018-19, but when the “Hospital Celtics” surfaced on Monday with no Kyrie Irving, Al Horford or Hayward available, he produced 11 points and six rebounds in 20 minutes.

Staying ready is a cliché, but for Ojeleye, he knows that firsthand, as the person who led the team through prayer following Hayward’s injury. It may be more difficult in practice on this year’s roster, loaded with bodies, but Brad Stevens still has his team believing they can be integrated at a moment’s notice.

“Everybody on this team knows that coach uses us all when we can help the team most,” Ojeleye said on Media Day. “Whenever that time is you don’t know, but if you’re ready for it then I think we’ve all shown that we can help the team in those moments.”

Entering Monday’s game against the Pelicans, Stevens’ starters did not resemble the ones that started the season. Terry Rozier (22 minutes per game), Marcus Smart (24), Tatum (31), Morris (26) and Daniel Theis (13) tipped off the game against New Orleans.

Robert Williams, playing for the first time in ten days in just his 10th NBA game, held NBA MVP candidate Anthony Davis to 7-of-17 shooting in the possessions they lined up against each other. Gino time-used Brad Wanamaker dished out four assists and shot 2-for-4. The Celtics won 113-110 in a undermanned effort, but that’s not been unusual for a Stevens team.

Theis didn’t contribute substantially in the victory, catching many of the 41 points Anthony Davis poured on the Celtics, but two days earlier, the C’s offense — to which he had provided only 5.2 points per game to prior — revolved around his rolls to the rim and shooting in a 133-77 victory over the Bulls. When you look back in the history books on Boston’s biggest win in franchise history, the scoring leader won’t be Irving, Tatum, Hayward, Brown, or Morris. It was Theis with 22 points on 8-of-15 shooting.

”I’m a little tired,” he said after. “It’s been a while since I’ve played that long. But I feel great.”

For players with European experience like Theis and Wanamaker that depth of rotation isn’t new. A trip to a Real Madrid game here in Spain quickly revealed to me that in the Euroleague, everybody gets off the bench.

That reality proved more shocking for a player going from the top end of a college rotation to trips between the G-League and sporadic playing time.

“You have no time to be lost, you have no time to be looking around,” Williams said. “You just got to be ready.”

Stevens doesn’t quite reach the Euroleague extreme and does occasionally slash his rotations. Instead, he creates unique windows of opportunity for certain players to enter and succeed. On this roster in particular, those windows open up rest for others, as Williams’ chance to play stemmed from Horford’s knee soreness and an Aron Baynes’ ankle injury against the Knicks.

Stevens doesn’t mention his philosophy on rotations often. His lineups may flip to mix and match combinations as much as they do to simply encourage the players lower on the roster. Regardless of motive, it creates a cohesive, unspoken knowledge throughout the room that everybody is involved.

Over the course of a long regular season where consistency, effort, and the ability to overcome injuries can make a seeding difference, the mindset has likely had an impact on the outcome of entire seasons for Stevens in Boston.

“The trademark of this group has been whoever’s not available, you don’t focus on that,” Stevens said. “You just focus on how to play to your strengths.”