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Versatility personified: Celtics lose pre-season opener, but show glimpses of promising future

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The Newport 5. Erotic City. Whatever you’re calling the starting five, there’s one thing that’s clear after last night’s first game: they’re going to be able to do a lot of different things.

NBA: Preseason-Boston Celtics at Charlotte Hornets Jeremy Brevard-USA TODAY Sports

“Versatility” has been one of the many buzzwords early at training camp. With a starting lineup that features five guys that could be many teams’ #1’s or #2’s, the Celtics have an abundance of riches. Conventional wisdom would suggest that you start with your five best players, but the puzzle for Stevens early in the pre-season is to figure out how to maximize their utility and make sure that the whole is greater than the sum of its parts.

None of the starters played over 23 minutes in their 104-97 loss to the Hornets last night, but they were good enough to build a 20-point lead before halftime. Kyrie Irving and Gordon Hayward looked rusty after their long layoffs, Al Horford was deferential, and Jayson Tatum and Jaylen Brown appeared to settle on a few shots in order to get into rhythm. Training camp effort produces training camp losses, but there were a few glimpses of what these guys could be down the road.

After their first practice, Irving talked about Stevens being a “basketball genius” and installing a ton of new wrinkles in their offense. Last night seemed unimaginative and uninspired, but it was clear that based purely on personnel, this will be a dynamic group.

This is a simple brush screen slip by Tatum to get the Hornets to switch the shorter Kemba Walker onto him. With most teams switching all screens in the modern NBA, taking advantage of mismatches has become the counter for teams going small. Seems simple enough, but there’s a little twist that Stevens adds: Horford above the three-point line. It forces his defender, Cody Zeller, to stay above the free throw line and gives space for Tatum to work. Irving reverses the ball to Horford to 1) keep Zeller honest and 2) give Horford a better angle at making the swing pass to Brown or Hayward in case either of their defenders doubles.

Here’s a similar play with Marcus Morris and Terry Rozier. Morris rebounds the ball and forces the ball up the right side of the court immediately. Rozier mentioned on Media Day that the Celtics could pick up the pace this season because of their depth. Here, there isn’t a big difference between Dwayne Bacon and Michael Kidd-Gilchrist, but that’s not the switch that the Celtics will eventually target. Because of the hard push up the floor after the defensive board, the weak side of the floor is where they want to take advantage.

Horford again spaces to the top of the arc. Brown, recognizing the mismatch between Hayward and Tony Parker, also delays his cut to keep Miles Bridges out of the paint. Hayward cuts hard into the restricted area and Parker is forced to foul him before he gets an easy lay up.

Here’s another example of Boston playing with pace and forcing mismatches. Rozier, one of the better rebounding guards in the league, hustles the ball up the court after a missed three. With two of his teammates trailing behind, he’s not necessarily looking to score, but if he can reach the restricted area and draw a second defender to him, it could lead to easy early offense. Frank Kaminsky is forced to take the bait and leave Aron Baynes wide open for a 3. Again, that’s Rozier taking advantage of his speed mismatch and Baynes’ newfound versatility as a perimeter threat.

Making only 9-of-47 three pointers isn’t ideal, but Stevens will live with this type of shot chart. It speaks to Boston’s ability to attack the rim for easy buckets and free throws AND shoot from the outside.