With a minute left in Game 5 against the Sixers, the Celtics were down two and on the verge of a trip back to Philadelphia. Boston had had a 3-0 stranglehold, but a loss in Game 4 and another in the Garden would shift momentum and maybe the balance of the series.
Then Marcus Smart happened.
In the span of sixty seconds, he tied up the game on an offensive rebound put back, generated a turnover on the defensive end to ignite the Celtics’ secondary break, assisted on what would be the game-winning bucket, unintentionally made a free throw, and intercepted the 76ers’ hail mary to end the game.
Smart’s performance in that series-clinching game and his ensuing 4-year, $52M new deal shouldn’t have been a surprise (and neither should the drama that lead up to both). As quirky as Smart and his game are, he changes the energy in the room. His counting stats may leave a lot to be desired, but there are analytics that show that Smart was Boston’s best clutch performer last season.
Last year in the regular season, the Celtics as a whole were above average in close games (29-17). They were 12th in the NBA in NetRtg at +3.7 with a surprisingly good offense (113.2 OffRtg) and an uncharacteristically bad defense (109.4 DefRtg), but Boston’s meh performance shouldn’t be attributed to Smart. Of all his teammates that averaged three or more minutes in crunch time, he had the second-highest net rating at 7.8 behind Jayson Tatum’s 8.9.
On offense, Smart acts as the de facto point guard even if he’s in lineups with Kyrie Irving or Terry Rozier. He had by far the highest assist-to-turnover rate in the clutch (4.5). On defense, he can hound the league’s best scoring guards or play down on the block against bigger 3’s and even 4’s. Brad Stevens has dubbed him the “sixth starter”; barring injury, Smart will most like come off the bench, but don’t be surprised if he bumps a starter out of the closing lineup.
With that said, there won’t be just one closing lineup for the Celtics. So much of late game decision-making is matchups, situation, adjustments off of adjustments off of adjustments, and gut. However, you can expect there to be a few constants: 1) whether the Celtics go big or small, Al Horford will be on the floor in crunch time, and 2) as Boston’s most dynamic scorer, Jayson Tatum, who played more clutch minutes than anybody on the team last year (144) and shot a blistering 58.8% from the floor, will most likely be there, too.
The other three spots, however, are up for grabs. We’ve already made a case for how Smart could supplant Kyrie as the primary ball handler in the closing minutes, but that doesn’t necessarily mean that Irving—arguably the Celtics’ best overall player—doesn’t find his way on to the floor. His defensive liabilities make him a perfect target for bigger guards. We saw how the Cavaliers would zero in on Terry Rozier (or Isaiah Thomas the year before) to punish the Celtics for trying to hide their smallest defender on the floor.
Jaylen Brown may not have the numbers (yet), but he has the game and the discipline. In the final minutes, teams get tight and the game slows down. Players might be in foul trouble, teams are nearing the bonus, and size, strength, and athleticism can outweigh scheme and skill. Jaylen, to his credit, has worked on his game and isn’t the same raw rookie out of Cal he was two years ago. In a pinch, he’s a freak on the floor that poses a lot of mismatches.
He’s going to be a favorite finisher in Brad Stevens’s toolkit because of his ability to beat his defender with or without the ball. He’s also become such a disciplined scorer. Only around 10% of Brown’s shots came in the midrange between the key and three point line. He shot around the league average at 40%, but he’s keenly aware that his improvement from 3 opens up driving lanes for his ferocious rim attacks. Over 50% of his shots came either at the rim or in the corners of the three-point line. However, he’ll have to improve his free throw shooting in Year 3 to become a dangerous closer.
That fifth Beatle spot could be a wild card. Surprisingly, we haven’t etched in stone either of Boston’s two returning All-Stars, Irving and Gordon Hayward. Their omissions aren’t meant to be cheeky, self-serving hot takes in an attempt to be clever or overthink the question. We’ve seen Kyrie famously cook in the clutch for Cleveland, and Hayward was Utah’s best player in his final years with the Jazz. Closing games is one of the reasons players of this level are max guys.
We’ll certainly see them in the final five minutes of a close game. When healthy, Kyrie averaged a usage rate of 47.4% last year in the clutch; that was higher than IT’s 46% in his King in the Fourth season in Boston. Hayward’s diversified game and ability to be a playmaker as a PnR ball handler and in the post make him a versatile cog in the Celtics’ late game offense.
But this upcoming team doesn't feel like an iteration of anything these players have been a part of. With the depth of this roster coupled with Brad Stevens on the X’s and O’s, do not only expect the closing lineup to change, but strategies to include everybody rather than just feeding the stars.