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Shane Larkin and Celtics’ bench find biggest fan in Brad Stevens

Brad Stevens’ trust, engagement with his bench throughout the year continues to draw the best from his bench, even in the postseason.

NBA: Playoffs-Milwaukee Bucks at Boston Celtics Bob DeChiara-USA TODAY Sports

Brad Stevens returned to Shane Larkin in game two after his turnover, foul-plagued stint in game one that was a factor in that day’s herculean swings. With 11 players and two point guards remaining, Stevens had little choice. But he added four minutes to Larkin’s playing time, as he wiped the slate clean with zero turnovers and 11 points.

Late in the first through the beginning of the second, he dribbled around multiple screens, shaking off defenders to blow by Jason Terry for a layup. He then slipped a pass between a bunch of colliding Bucks to their former teammate Greg Monroe.

Nothing swung the game like his closing effort in the third, initially crossing up Terry on the left wing and leaving him feet behind as Larkin glided to the rim. Terry chucked the ball past mid court to nobody in particular, it rolled by Giannis Antetokounmpo, and arrived aimlessly at Khris Middleton. The demoralizing moment hadn’t even hit yet.

Larkin ran half the length of the floor in under three seconds on the next possession, chucked a long three over Terry’s head at the buzzer and it cradled through the net. The Celtics stood up 15 entering the fourth in a playoff matchup they’d claim running away.

The terms Stevens used to describe his performance would have fit an all-star, not a player who 44 times this year entered a game and didn’t score a point, and who did not play on a NBA team a season ago.

He called Larkin’s defense good, then great, through the first two games.

“He attacked, beat people off the dribble on a number of occasions. Made plays for himself and others, and played really aggressively.”

“You go from 12 to 15,” he continued. “You get to start with the ball in the fourth. It’s a huge, huge difference. He made a ton of big plays and defensively he’s been great all year.”

All year Stevens has notably touted the defensive aptitude of his players, including Guerschon Yabusele’s ability to defend on the perimeter, another surprise contributor off Boston’s bench in game two. Before the season, when doubts arose about Jayson Tatum’s defense out of Duke, Stevens zagged, calling him “ahead of his years” on that end of the floor. He’d go on to average a steal and nearly a block per game, with a 1.5 defensive box plus-minus.

Two trends continued into Stevens’ fifth season as Celtics head coach, even with his roster dwindling toward the postseason he anticipated making his bench a big part of his playoff game plan, and he has.

Larkin’s received a boost after his year in Spain, talked up by Stevens at every turn. That mix of constant encouragement, backing it up with the action of playing time has allowed him to oversee an engaged roster through the regular season and playoffs.

Larkin, like Tatum, exceeded expectations on the defensive end this year especially after sliding into the backup point spot behind Terry Rozier. Even at 5’11”, in 12 appearances after Kyrie Irving and Marcus Smart went down he posted the third best defensive rating (99.3) on the team behind Aron Baynes and Tatum.

That opportunity emerged from injuries, but he’s dealt with his own in a season where he’s fallen on his back, suffered knee discomfort and was in the hospital with flu-like symptoms to begin April.

Now he’s closing it not always scoring, but visibly elevating Boston’s pace on both ends in his minutes on the floor.

“I’m not going to be a guy who can play slow,” he said. “That can’t be me. My strong suit is pick you up at 90 feet, make you work, push the pace on offense, get into your legs and try to make your life hell.”