Playing time is hard to come by in the Celtics rotation. If you’re on the outside looking in, you had better seize every opportunity that comes your way. Against the Cleveland Cavaliers, a blowout victory provided the Celtics’ garbage time rotation a rare chance to stake their claim for more significant minutes.
From Tacko Fall to Carsen Edwards, the Celtics bench primarily consists of players considered “projects.” Unfortunately, projects need competitive game time, and with the absence of a G-League season in Maine, many of these projects are warming the end of the bench.
The Celtics essentially had the game wrapped up midway through the third quarter, allowing an extended run for some of Boston’s rawer talents. While some players put in a modest showing during their extended run, others took the opportunity to grab the bull by the horns.
Edwards has struggled to replicate his 2019 Summer League form since signing a three-year, $4.5 million deal. The 2019 second round pick has consistently looked overwhelmed when on an NBA court, operating at breakneck speed and rushing his opportunities as he tries to impress.
Something has changed this season, as the second-year guard has now put in two encouraging performances - first against the Memphis Grizzlies and then again against the Cavaliers.
Last season, Edwards was married to the notion of hurting teams from the perimeter, using screens in a fashion similar to Kemba Walker. Against the Cavaliers, Edwards had a different agenda, repeatedly driving into the teeth of the defense. Were those drives always successful? No, were they encouraging? Definitely.
Edwards finished the Cavaliers game on 7-for-12 shooting, yet the above play is the most encouraging one. Receiving the ball in space at the top of the perimeter, Edwards would usually let one fly without giving it a second thought, but not this time. Instead, the Purdue product takes a moment to read the floor. When it’s apparent that no other options are currently available, Edwards drives middle, right into the teeth of the defense, absorbing the contact on the layup while keeping his composure to get the finish at the rim.
Finishing plays off the drive is essential for Edwards; it will force the defense to remain wary of the threat he poses off the dribble.
Edwards creates some space off the step back dribble, leaving his defender on an island, which results in an easy three-point shot. That step back wouldn’t have paid dividends if Edwards weren’t finding success off the drive.
With Payton Pritchard sideline for the next two weeks and Brad Stevens seemingly keen on pairing a scorer alongside Jeff Teague, Carsen Edwards has done himself no harm in his quest for additional rotation minutes, however fleeting they may be.
We’ve yet to see consistent minutes from the 14th pick in this year’s draft, yet each time the rookie has taken the floor, he seems vastly improved over his previous showing. Nesmith is learning, and quickly it would seem.
Against Cleveland, the rookie wing had his best showing today, mixing smart defensive rotations with improved success when shooting the ball. Sure, some plays left you scratching your head, but you should expect mistakes from first-year players - they need the opportunity to learn from those mistakes if they wish to improve.
As we saw with Romeo Langford last year, the fastest way to earn minutes under Stevens is defense, either on-ball or off. The jury may still be out about the Nesmith’s ability as an on-ball defender, but against the Cavs he displayed upside as a helper.
On this defensive possession, Nesmith is flooding the strong side as the low-man helper. For reference, players flood/pre-rotate to discourage a drive when a scorer is isolating; in this instance, the scorer is Darius Garland.
As Garland drives, Nesmith’s positioning helps deter the layup, forcing Garland to kick the ball out across the baseline. Here’s where the real test of a player’s help defense comes into question - if the ball finds an open player on the weak side, how quickly and efficiently do they close out?
Nesmith reads the pass perfectly and rotates back to his man on the corner with enough time to contest the shot while in motion. The result is a missed attempt, which leads to a fast break opportunity for the Celtics.
When Nesmith did guard man-to-man, he played the percentages, funneling his man into the paint, where a gargantuan Tacko Fall was waiting to deter any notion of shooting.
Despite possessing the physical tools to have scalability as a defender, Nesmith’s primary remit is to space the floor, which means he has to hit his open looks. Currently, the Vanderbilt product looks rushed on his release, which has led to struggles in his shot’s consistency.
Pleasantly, when playing against the Cavs, Nesmith resembled the shooter he was in college - poised and efficient with his movements.
Nesmith went 3-for-5 from deep in this contest, and while there’s still an incredible amount of room for improvement, if he can become consistent from range, he might find himself in Stevens’ plans sooner than later.
As CelticsBlog’s Daniel Poarch noted, Tacko Fall suffered the most when the Celtics had a week’s worth of games postponed earlier this month.
In his limited appearances this season, Fall has increasingly looked like an NBA-level center. Operating almost exclusively in drop coverage, Fall is protecting the rim exceptionally well while also seeing his rebounding improve as a byproduct.
Fall, for all his growth over the past year, has shown there are still some more nuanced aspects of his game that need tightening before he can genuinely become part of the rotation.
In this clip, Fall is “two-nining” in the paint. Javale McGee is situated outside of the perimeter, where he’s generally considered a non-threat. As Fall begins to cleanse (get both feet outside the paint to reset the defensive three seconds) McGee begins to cut. Fall could cleanse by exiting the paint on either side of the floor, however, he’s chosen to cleanse at the free-throw line.
McGee times his run perfectly, and Fall is caught out of position, which allows McGee the easy dunk. Little cracks in defensive possessions provide offenses with easy buckets. Fall, by no means, should be ridiculed for this mistake. It’s a teachable moment, one that he will learn from.
Yet, until the 7’5’’ big can eliminate some of these mistakes from his game, he’s going to be resigned to garbage time and emergency minutes.
Overall, we were fortunate enough to see some of the Celtics long-term projects (and one two-way) get extended floor time in a commanding victory. For the most part, these “projects” all looked like they belonged on an NBA floor, and as this truncated season continues to progress, they will likely have more opportunities to stake their claim for increased meaningful minutes.