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Lineup changes, bad defense and balance: 10 takeaways from Celtics/Cavaliers

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Boston snapped their four-game losing streak and clinched a playoff spot with the win in Cleveland

NBA: Boston Celtics at Cleveland Cavaliers David Richard-USA TODAY Sports

1. Brad Stevens changed the starting lineup! Some of this was because players were in and out due to coming back from injuries and resting, but it probably portends something more. Boston went big with Aron Baynes opening the game alongside Al Horford up front. Jayson Tatum returned from a one-game absence on the wing and Marcus Smart and Terry Rozier (in place of the resting Kyrie Irving) filled out the starting five. This meant that Marcus Morris, who has started for the majority of the season, returned to the bench role in which he did quite well last year.

With Cleveland starting Tristan Thompson, who has historically given Horford trouble on the glass, Stevens chose to go big. While the Baynes/Horford pairing may not be ideal against every team, it has its spots. Overall, this change was a positive for Boston, as Thompson had just two offensive rebounds and only three rebounds total. All in all, the Celtics out-rebounded the Cavaliers by a 46-36 margin and 11-3 on the offensive boards. Look for Stevens to continue to play matchup basketball the rest of the way and not stick to a rigid opening group.

2. The Celtics had really active hands all game long. They totaled over 15 deflections and came up with eight steals. This helped mask some other defensive issues, mainly allowing Cleveland to shoot nearly 49 percent for the game. In addition, Boston’s defense played far better when they amped up the ball pressure. With quick guards like Smart, Rozier and Jaylen Brown and long defenders like Horford and Tatum, this is an approach we can expect to see more of from the Celtics in the postseason. It’s hard to ask players to play like this for 82 regular season games, but in the playoffs this is a strategy that should do well for Boston.

3. It wasn’t a great game for Jaylen Brown, especially on the defensive end. He got lost a few times and struggled to control ball handlers. But he did have a couple of nice moments on offense. This play shows some of his improved patience, as well as his natural athletic ability. He comes off the screen from Daniel Theis and uses a hesitation-dribble to see if a passing lane opens up. When it doesn’t, Brown goes strong to the rim and finishes through contact for the and-1 opportunity:

4. The assists numbers weren’t overly high for Boston, especially with the second unit, but the ball movement was generally solid. This clip is a perfect example of how the Celtics want to play. All five players touch the ball, it hits the paint and eventually works its way to Brown for an open three-pointer:

5. Rozier can do a lot good things when he’s engaged and using his athleticism to make plays. Here he jumps the passing lane from out of nowhere and uses his speed to get a breakaway layup. More energy plays like this, and less dribbling, from Rozier would go a long way.

6. The Celtics, even in Game 75, continue to do some really silly stuff. At this point in the game, Boston’s defense had waned some and they were trading baskets with Cleveland. But, for a change, they properly executed the two-for-one at the end of the quarter. Brown hit a three, then Rozier got a layup. Then, despite Stevens imploring them to press up, they let Collin Sexton let the ball roll over halfcourt with just four seconds to play in the quarter.

If that wasn’t bad enough, Rozier and Guerschon Yabusele nonsensically switch before Sexton (one of the faster players in the league) scoops the ball up and immediately drives right by Yabusele (not one of the faster players in the league) for an easy layup:

This is the sort of sloppy, dumb play that Boston should have eliminated by now. In the playoffs, where each possession matters more, this sort of thing could be the difference between winning and losing a game.

7. Also the difference between winning and losing a game? Riding, or in this case, not riding the hot-hand. Tatum was dominant in the first half. He scored 21 points on 9-of-14 shooting. He finally seemed to have snapped out of the slump that has plagued him for nearly two months and it seemed like a career-high scoring night was on the way. In the second half? Tatum got only three shots and missed them all.

Now, some of this is on Tatum for sure. He played a little more passively in the second half than in the first. Some is due to Cleveland defending him a bit better. Even more is just an outcome of how the Boston offense works. It’s a read and react system that takes what is open, not one based on getting one player the ball.

But…a chunk falls on Stevens too. If the Celtics can work to hunt mismatches, a tactic they often use to great success, they can work to get a hot player shots. Stevens needs to have some go-to, pet plays to get Tatum, or anyone who has it going, some looks in these situations. If he’s not going to go get shots, get them for him. In part, this is how playoff games are won and it’s something Boston needs to be better at.

8. Horford and Tatum were both called on to return to the game far earlier than normal substitution patterns call for. After Cleveland cut the lead to just three point, Stevens called a timeout (he actually used timeouts to stop runs!) and put Horford and Tatum back in the game. This was with 9:46 left in the fourth. That’s anywhere from four to six minutes earlier than usual. He generally likes for his frontline guys, be it Horford, Tatum or Kyrie Irving, to sit until there are between six and four minutes in the game. Then they come back in to close the game.

Because the Celtics were struggling to hold off the Cavs, Stevens had to go back to two players coming off injury for the final 9:46 of the game. It got Boston the win, but it’s not the ideal strategy. Having two days off before the next game negates the impact some, but when you play every other day in the playoffs, you want to steal in-game rest when and where you can.

9. Despite, or maybe because of, Tatum’s monster first half and quiet second half, the Celtics offense was very balanced. Tatum and Smart each scored 21 points, Horford had 19, Hayward 15, Morris 14 and Rozier 11. That’s six players in double-figuring scoring, and Brown just missed with nine points. When Irving is in the lineup, he’s going to take shots, and thus points, from some others, but this type of offensive balance is where Boston thrives.

10. Smart made a bunch of plays late for the Celtics. He hit 3-of-4 shots in the fourth quarter for nine of his 21 points. He also had two steals and was generally making all of the “Marcus Smart plays” that aid in Boston winning games. It’s sometimes tough to say who should and shouldn’t be a part of the Celtics closing lineup, but it’s clear that one of them should always be Smart.