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Celtics gelling, mixing, and matching on west coast trip

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Boston’s wing depth becoming major strength on the road.

NBA: Boston Celtics at Los Angeles Lakers Gary A. Vasquez-USA TODAY Sports

After Saturday’s trouncing of the Lakers, the Celtics were fairly ho-hum about their play. Los Angeles was depleted by injuries and are fully in the tank. It was Boston’s third straight win out west and it was again a business-like four quarters approach to the game. As it’s been all week, the focus is on togetherness and playing the right way. Kyrie Irving said, “We just want to play well. Everybody has to step up. It starts with me and it starts with my energy and my spirit. When everyone is on the same page, we’re a different team.”

“We weren’t doing that consistently throughout this season and now, it’s more important than ever for us to have connectivity and be together. That’s where my focus is. That helps me play at a high level when all my teammates are playing at a high level.”

There are some small yet effective tweaks that Stevens has implemented in the rotations that have helped them reach peak Celtics. For example, Marcus Morris and Jayson Tatum’s stints in the first and third quarters are usually short and in the six-minute range. Compartively speaking, the starting back court of Kyrie Irving and Marcus Smart can sometimes play upwards to 10-11 minutes to start the game and the second half. Swapping wings early (Morris and Tatum for Gordon Hayward and Jaylen Brown) gives Stevens the ability to create mismatches later in the game; if an opposing team’s second unit plays big, Stevens can counter with Tatum and speed; if a team is smaller, the Celtics can play bully ball with Morris.

Here’s a good example of the Celtics going big against the Lakers’ small lineup. Even with Smart and Irving on the floor, Morris is the initiator of the offense. A Baynes’ pick peels off the smaller Bullock in favor of Johnathan Williams. That actually helps LA here, but another brush screen switches Alex Caruso onto Mook. That becomes the mismatch Boston chooses to exploit. Morris immediately drops down into the post and a Smart cut on the slower LeBron leads to a nifty layop.

Here’s Morris again taking advantage of a switch on the smaller Rajon Rondo. Boston’s read-and-react offense doesn’t always have to be in constant motion. A quick hitter like this where they can get a point guard to switch onto their power forward is an easy way to get a good shot.

Later in the game, a double pick pits the ball-handling Hayward on Williams. That’s a match up Hayward knows he can exploit. We’ve seen this a lot recently: Hayward takes those back up dribbles to near half court, builds up some momentum off the dribble, and hits that pet fall away in the paint.

Stevens has also opted for shorter but more frequent bursts of playing time for Al Horford. For most of the season, Horford had been opening and closing halves, but now, there are blips where he bridges quarters and plays with the second unit. That move has made him more of an offensive hub and less of a scorer on this west coast trip; he had only five points against the Warriors and 10 in Los Angeles on Saturday night.

On this road trip, he’s shared the floor with the starting wings, Morris and Tatum, for 48 minutes. They sport a robust +13.0 NetRtg (121.8 OffRtg, 108.7 DefRtg). There’s little drop off when Horford is inserted in the second unit. In fact, they’re better. In the twenty-four minutes with Hayward and Brown, the Celtics are a +25.1 NetRtg (105.5 OffRtg, 80.4 DefRtg).

NBA: Boston Celtics at Sacramento Kings Ed Szczepanski-USA TODAY Sports

The biggest revelation, however, after that fateful plane ride from Logan to SFO has been Hayward. Stevens has been able to use him as a facilitator and scorer in all kinds of lineups and Old G has responded. The San Diego off-season resident has the fourth highest NetRtg for rotation players (6.7 NetRtg behind Baynes, Tatum, and Irving) and leads the team at +46 for the three games in California. He’s shooting a ridiculous 70.6% from the floor, 41.7% from behind the arc, and 100% on game winners.

All these upward trends are exactly what you want to see heading into the playoffs. Over the last three games, only Irving is averaging more than thirty minutes a game (32.4). Tatum and Hayward are hovering around 29 mpg with Morris and Brown trailing behind at 26 and 24 respectively. And with Aron Baynes back in the mix, Al Horford has been able to keep his minutes down to around 27 mpg. Boston has enjoyed blowouts in Oakland and Los Angeles, but it’s also a testament to their depth that they’ve been able to keep their minutes down. That will help them a month from now when they’ve got fresh legs heading into the post season.