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Celtics depth gives Stevens playoff options

A firm top-eight is set. Now Stevens can play the matchup game to round out the rotation.

NBA: Golden State Warriors at Boston Celtics Bob DeChiara-USA TODAY Sports

In the midst of a six-game win streak, the Boston Celtics are finally playing their brand of basketball. Tough and hard-nosed, the Celtics have won games by coming from behind, making huge plays in the clutch, and overtaking several playoff-bound foes. It’s hard not to get excited about the postseason on the horizon with the team playing as well as they are of late.

Guys like Tristan Thompson have continually alluded to the team’s focus on bigger things: that rest, health and hitting their stride late are more important than winning regular season games or seeding. Through the multitude of roster moves over the last month, that mentality can be reinforced from the players all the way up to the front office. The Celtics are dialed into being successful in June and July.

So let’s look ahead briefly to how the roster’s construction is geared for postseason success. There are star players who can shoulder the offensive load in Jayson Tatum, Jaylen Brown and veteran Kemba Walker, who looks the best he’s ever been in a Celtics uniform. There’s the pugnacious pitbull of Marcus Smart, good for amazing effort, lockdown defense, and a few timely shots.

Besides the core four, there’s another group who has played well enough to solidify their minutes for the postseason rotation. Robert Williams and Tristan Thompson form a formidable duo up front; since February 26th, Williams, in particular, is averaging 10.4 points, 8.6 rebounds, 2.9 assists and 2.3 blocks while shooting 72 percent from the field. Evan Fournier, the team’s prized trade deadline acquisition, is a second-unit flamethrower who provides much-needed floor spacing and scoring off the bench. Sprinkle in some rookie point guard Payton Pritchard, a cerebral competitor who gives sturdy second unit minutes.

What you’re left with is an eight-man rotation Brad Stevens can rely on, finally settling what has been a convoluted process to establish a hierarchy on a fluid roster.

Perhaps just as exciting from a coaching perspective is that all the other pieces on the roster are tailor-made for Stevens to press whatever buttons he needs to win a postseason series. What Danny Ainge has assembled in Boston, besides the star brigade at the top while dodging the repeater tax, is a coach’s dream due to the strong role understanding of everyone outside the top eight.

Depending on the right matchup, we could see a number of guys inserted into the lineup as the ninth option.

The Stretch-5: Luke Kornet

To say Luke Kornet deserves a spot in the Celtics’ permanent rotation might be a stretch, but there is massive functionality to the role he provides. He’s a sweet-shooting seven-footer who is an ideal counter to defenses who play exaggerated drop coverage.

In eight games since coming to Boston, Kornet is taking 6.9 threes per 36 minutes. He isn’t shy about getting them up and is effective in the middle pie slice. A pick-and-pop threat not only attacks certain ball screen coverages but opens up the paint for the Celtics’ top scorers to have more room to attack. His presence is as much about creating easier shots for Tatum, Brown and Walker as it is how many points he scores.

Philadelphia 76ers v Boston Celtics Photo by Brian Babineau/NBAE via Getty Images

There’s little doubt Kornet will give some of those back on the other end. He isn’t a great defender and can be attacked in space. Against the right team, he’s an important piece to have in the back pocket. Philadelphia 76ers center Joel Embiid traditionally stays home instead of rushing to contest shots on the perimeter. Trading threes for twos for a couple of minutes while exposing his lack of desire for mobility could swing a game in Boston’s favor. The same can be said of Milwaukee Bucks big Brook Lopez, too.

The Small-Ball Scoring 5: Jabari Parker

I don’t think I was the only one who scratched their head a bit when the Celtics recently announced the signing of Parker, an injury-riddled scorer who has lost most of his burst after two ACL tears to the same knee. Instead of focusing on what Jabari isn’t (a great defender or lateral athlete), there is a lot that he can do better than any Celtic on the second unit: put the ball in the hole.

Golden City Warriors v Boston Celtics Photo by Kathryn Riley/Getty Images

We saw the benefits of that in his debut against the Golden State Warriors, providing a scoring punch while playing a small-ball 5. It’s a great way to keep up with torrid scoring second units or provide an offensive lift when the C’s aren’t getting it done.

Parker’s minutes will largely be matchup-dependent. Against teams with massive, impactful bigs like Philly or Milwaukee, he might struggle to see the floor. Against teams with a propensity to go smaller, like the Brooklyn Nets or Miami Heat, Parker should get ready to come in and play as hard as possible.

The Small-Ball Defensive 5: Grant Williams

It’s long been my belief that Grant’s best role is as a small-ball 5. His facilitating pops a lot more atop the key, and he’s strong enough to guard many bigs down low. In those same matchups, against Brooklyn or Miami, he can hold his own against guys like Blake Griffin, Bam Adebayo or Bucks backup-5 Bobby Portis.

Putting Williams at the 5 would make him the ying to Parker’s yang, the defense to his offense. But this isn’t the only path to Williams getting postseason minutes...

The Sturdy, Defensive 4: Grant Williams and Semi Ojeleye

Going against a star player on the wings, Stevens knows it’s best to save Brown and Tatum from taking on that matchup whenever possible. So he inserts a strong-bodied wing defender who can play up to the task.

Atlanta Hawks v Boston Celtics Photo by Brian Babineau/NBAE via Getty Images

If nothing else over the last few years, Semi Ojeleye has earned a roster spot in Boston because he’s fairly effective at guarding Giannis Antetokounmpo in the postseason. He gives effort, moves his feet, can’t be bodied down low and focuses only on stopping his counterpart. While Grant isn’t quite as good as Semi at that specific role, he brings a little more to the table all around and is a sensational help defender.

We know both guys can knock down open shots in the corners when they stand there. We know both guys will do the dirty work and embrace the opportunity to guard the other team’s best player. In order for them to get consistent minutes, they need the right foe for that to be a necessity.

The Slashing Wing: Romeo Langford

Go any smaller and more athletic on the wings and Grant and Semi might get pushed out for Romeo Langford. Only a second-year pro who still has a lot to figure out, Langford has impressed with his energy on-ball and engagement when he’s on the floor. Against matchups where Williams and Ojeleye lose battles in footspeed, Langford becomes vital. That could be against a team like Brooklyn with their many wings, Miami to chase Duncan Robinson around screens or the Charlotte Hornets with their potent multi-guard lineups.

Charlotte Hornets v Boston Celtics Photo by Adam Glanzman/Getty Images

Offensively, Langford is a bit trick-or-treat right now. In a playoff series, that can be a tad worrisome, but his activity and effort will carry him through. If he’s called upon, he’ll be ready.

The Shooters: Aaron Nesmith and Carsen Edwards

It’s playoff basketball. Everyone digs in and defends a little harder. Points are difficult to come by, and scouting reports focus on limiting stars just a bit more than usual. While Tatum, Brown and Walker struggle a bit, Stevens looks down his bench to find a way to give his best guys a little more room to breathe.

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

That’s where Aaron Nesmith or Carsen Edwards find spot minutes in the postseason: instant shooting off the bench for a few minutes at a time. Edwards, the more senior of the two, has his limitations on the other end as a 6’1” specialty shooter. He’s proficient off screens, so if movement is what’s required, he’ll get the call. Nesmith, on the other hand, is a little less streaky and is easier to count on for nailing the open one. He’s bigger and stronger, an advantage defensively, but is still a rookie who makes rookie mistakes.

There isn’t one series or matchup when these guys would earn their stripes, just a feeling in the game where the C’s need some offense and floor spacing for a couple of minutes.

The Chess Master

Juggling all these pieces is Stevens, a master tactician who has always been lauded for his ability to be blunt with his guys and prepare them to overachieve. We know what Stevens can do X’s-and-O’s-wise, and how he always knows how to hit the right button from a strategy standpoint.

More important, especially with so many youngsters vying for these minutes, is the level of communication and clarity he puts into preparing guys for limited roles. There is little doubt that Stevens can prepare each of these players to thrive in their spot minutes. The expectations will be articulated, the buy-in present and (hopefully) the results will follow.

Stevens has to be excited to see the team rounding into shape and pulling out close contests. He’s also giddy about having such a versatile group of mercenaries to plug whatever holes in the ship he thinks need to be filled. It’s turning into a coach’s dream.

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