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Celtics should experiment with rotation with depleted roster

Grant Williams, Al Horford and Jabari Parker entered COVID protocols this week. The front court losses will require the Celtics to get creative with their rotation — and experiment.

Boston Celtics v Phoenix Suns Photo by Christian Petersen/Getty Images

Head coach Ime Udoka began the preseason bringing Al Horford off the bench and starting Juancho Hernángomez, a move he urged not to read too much in to. Since then, Hernángomez hasn’t factored into the Celtics’ rotation, Horford returned to the starting lineup alongside Robert Williams III and Boston’s rotation hasn’t changed when fully healthy.

With Al Horford, Grant Williams, Jabari Parker, and Juancho Hernangomez in the league’s COVID protocol for an undetermined amount of time, the Celtics have a chance to shake things up at least in this back-to-back against the Warriors and Knicks. Udoka previewed rotation changes last weekend that started with reinserting Jaylen Brown back into the lineup.

“We’ve played similar rotations for the most part,” Udoka said last week. “We do look at quarter-by-quarter, and where we have the most success, we try to get off to good starts and the last few games the second quarters have stood out. Like I said, we’ll look at everything based on these 25 games and see where changes need to be made, whether it’s lineup, rotation, minutes, everything.”

Udoka ultimately courted a few Brown-led bench units that the Celtics quickly got away from during Boston’s win over the Bucks. Romeo Langford is playing more often, and he, Aaron Nesmith and Grant Williams appeared together in the loss to Phoenix, before Langford and Nesmith mixed in for limited minutes staggered in with the starters on Monday. That was the extent of last week’s experimentation.

When faced with missing players, Udoka plugged Dennis Schröder in the back court and Williams in the front court with the starters. The latter won’t be an option now, but Brown’s return only leaves one open slot in the starting unit. Josh Richardson is back from COVID protocol, Enes Freedom can fill backup minutes at the five and Langford can play some minutes behind them. That’d be the safe way to proceed.

This is also an opportunity for the Celtics to see what they have on the bottom half of the roster. Those Schröder and Williams starting units didn’t rate well during Brown’s absence. Payton Pritchard didn’t play until the fourth quarter in last Friday’s loss at the Suns, despite Schröder and Smart starting that night and leaving no back court depth behind them.

Aaron Nesmith continues to enter games sporadically to take three shots over 10 minutes and exit. With Grant missing, the Celtics will need some floor spacing off the bench and that raises the prospect of sprinkling him or two-way sharpshooter Sam Hauser into the mix.

Maine plays Long Island tonight, which could knock out the Hauser possibility for the Warriors game. He did play against Milwaukee late and hit a difficult three, adding to the 43.3% mark he’s achieved on nine three-point attempts per game through his first 10 appearances. The Celtics have yet to put him in a game, outside of seven minutes across three garbage time opportunities. He, at least, is getting an opportunity to play with the G-League Celtics. Udoka told CelticsBlog last week a stint in Maine hasn’t been considered for Pritchard or Nesmith.

Bruno Fernando, who missed time recently with back spasms, could be also be in the mix for five minutes if Freedom struggles, though he’s likely the last line of defense at the position.

The Celtics have built a successful defense while offense eludes them with their current rotation. Brown’s return certainly helps both ends, as Monday showed, but this week’s COVID wave shows the need to carve out real roles and rhythm for some of the lower rotation players on the bench. That will ultimately help the team in the long-term too, with some of these players potentially providing the shooting the Celtics have desperately needed.

Grant has provided much of it with his three-point explosion and sounds like he’s doing well following his positive test. Richardson’s five-day stint in protocol showed this could be a shorter absence window than last season’s string of positive tests that knocked out Jayson Tatum, Tristan Thompson, Robert Williams, and Langford long-term.

Changes will be coming to the protocol, which incentivize the booster shot and lead to quicker returns following positive tests. In the meantime, this is an opportunity for Udoka to see what he has deeper in the rotation.

“The thing I tell players is that we have a lot of guys that aren’t playing that could be playing and want to play,” Udoka said last month. “I’ve talked to those guys about staying prepared and being professional and ready to play. I’ve been through the same situation as a player.”