The Celtics lost a tough one on Friday night, falling to the Jazz 99-94 in a game where the team struggled to get into any sort of a rhythm offensively. Despite going up big early in the first quarter, the Celtics surrendered the cushion in the second period and the Jazz never looked back en route to the victory.
The patchwork starting unit of Kemba Walker, Marcus Smart, Semi Ojeleye, Jayson Tatum, and Daniel Theis did a good job of containing Donovan Mitchell and Rudy Gobert, and helped build an early double-figure advantage before Utah’s second unit came storming back. Led by Mike Conley, who was subbed out earlier than the rest of the Jazz starters so he could lead the bench group, and Joe Ingles, the Jazz caught fire from deep while locking up Boston’s bench – turning a double-digit deficit into a ten-point lead in just over seven minutes.
Single game plus/minus since can often be pretty noisy stat, but in this case the numbers are so striking it’s worth mentioning. Despite the loss, all of Boston’s starters were positives (other than Semi, they were all double-digit positives, too), while everyone that came off the bench was a negative. Every member of the Jazz bench was at least a +22.
The Celtics largely lost this game during that seven-minute stretch between the first and second quarters, where the Jazz completed a 21-point swing. In the five shared Enes Kanter-Romeo Langford minutes, Utah went on a 21-8 run, taking advantage of neither Marcus Smart nor Jayson Tatum being there to harass them defensively.
It led to a whole lot of this.
It’s become almost necessary for Brad Stevens to have at least one of them out on the court at all times. According to Cleaning the Glass, in the 701 non-garbage time possessions (approximately three full games), the Celtics have played with both Smart and Tatum on the bench, Boston has been outscored by a shocking 7.9 points per 100 possessions.
In fact, that stretch was part of a 9-minute rest for Tatum in the second quarter on a night where he played the least number of minutes (32:58) since that memorable February 1st blowout victory over the 76ers.
Jayson Tatum on limiting his minutes a bit, like the Celtics did tonight: “It makes sense. It’s a long season. Playoffs are what’s most important.”— Jay King (@ByJayKing) March 7, 2020
As Tatum himself noted, the Celtics seem to have made a conscious decision to start resting Tatum to prepare for the playoffs. It’s a topic that came up at the MIT Sloan Conference this weekend, as former Celtics assistant coach Tom Thibodeau and the Mavericks’ Bob Voulgaris debated the merits of rest vs. rust and whether players need to play more to prepare for their increased load in the playoffs or play less to put less stress on their body.
After the game, Brad Stevens touched on his desire to limit Tatum’s minutes – one which makes sense given the fact that he has previously played hefty playoff minutes:
Brad Stevens said he’s trying to manage Tatum’s minutes appropriately because of how much he’s played in the last month and a half. That contributed to his lengthy absence in the second quarter.— Jay King (@ByJayKing) March 7, 2020
It’s certainly something worth monitoring moving forward. The second seed is just two games out of reach, and the Celtics might have been able to turn this game around if Stevens had put Tatum back in per the normal rotation. So while resting him more during the regular season might help come playoff time, if it results in the second seed, playing him more in the regular season could lead to load management of its own with a potentially much easier and quicker first round series against Orlando or Brooklyn rather than Indiana or Philadelphia.
Tatum’s relatively, lighter load coupled with Kemba’s minutes restriction and the injuries to Jaylen Brown and Gordon Hayward caused those extended bench minutes. This came off the heels off a few other shaky performances from the C’s reserves and led to the inevitable speculation about whether this Celtics team has enough coming off the bench, especially scoring-wise. But this team has enough offensive scoring weapons in the starting lineup that the bench doesn’t need to score all that much. On the year, the Celtics are just second in bench-scoring, but sixth in bench plus-minus.
Brad Stevens, too, assuaged those fears post-game, telling Forbes’ Chris Grenham, “I don’t want to make our generalizations about our bench until we have our roster in full.” He went on to mention that the team’s bench has never really been fully healthy and that he’ll see how it goes when they’re healthy.