When the playoffs come every spring, the rotation thins out. It’s no longer about fielding a complete, balanced, or well-rounded roster that can last the marathon of the regular season. It’s about our top-eight going to battle with the other team’s top-eight.
There may be a few others sprinkled in here and there based on injuries, foul trouble or matchups, but the core of this Boston Celtics team will shoulder almost the entirety of a postseason series.
In that respect, the Celtics are in decent shape: at least when it comes to a clear hierarchy of who is in their top-eight. Really, it’s broken down into two tiers.
The core four: Jayson Tatum, Jaylen Brown, Kemba Walker, Marcus Smart
The role players: Robert Williams, Tristan Thompson, Evan Fournier, Payton Pritchard
Brad Stevens directs his entire playing style around the core four. That includes what offense to run, how to manage rotations so at least one is on the floor at all times, and managing minutes through the regular season so these guys don’t fatigue too early. The basis of the last five months has been simple: keep these four healthy and we have a chance.
Offensively, everything runs through Tatum, Brown, and Walker. All three have turned into tough shot-makers. Tatum’s spin-o-rama in the mid-range and unguardable step-backs give the Celtics a late-clock option who can create his own. Brown has flashed three-level scoring prowess and is the most consistent finisher at the basket of the group. Walker is lethal in the pick-and-roll while knocking down enough shots to keep defenses locked onto him when he doesn’t have the rock. When this core four is on the floor together, per NBA.com lineup stats, the Celtics shoot over 50% from the field and 40% from deep.
Defensively, the trio of Tatum, Brown and Smart are long, strong and smart. Switching with those three provides a lot of versatility. First, it stops ball actions like screens and handoffs from creating an offensive advantage. Second, it saves Tatum and Brown from expending energy they’d otherwise use chasing their man all over the court.
Switching 1 through 4, like the Celtics have done in the past, can expose Kemba to post mismatches and requires high-IQ helpers to help blanket him. With the relative inexperience of some of the role players, that could be a dangerous proposition to rely on in the postseason.
That’s where the lineup shuffling comes into play. There’s little doubt that the core four will start games together, and finish them as well. The key to success is in Stevens balancing the rest of the rotation and plugging in the right role players to maximize this group.
Robert Williams has emerged as a sturdy fifth starter when healthy. In such a wacky, injury-riddled season, we still haven’t seen him operate a ton with the core four. The five-man unit of Williams, Tatum, Brown, Smart and Walker has only played in ten games together, barely notching a positive plus-minus rating. Williams is much-improved, earning a larger role and the trust of his teammates. In his ten starts from March 26th to April 13th, Timelord played 25.2 minutes a night, shooting an absurd 69.2% from the field with averages of 10.1 points, 9.1 rebounds, 3.4 assists and 2.0 blocks. The Celts went 8-2 in that stretch.
The playmaking of Williams, combined with the rim protection, makes him an appealing fifth option. Playoff basketball is very different than regular season minutes, especially if the Celtics draw a team with a strong post player like Joel Embiid in the first round. His play is incredibly vital.
When Williams isn’t on the floor, the veteran Thompson will eat the lion’s share of minutes at the 5. He’s prepared for energy, defense, rebounding and knows what it takes to win in the postseason. Yet he’s only played seven games with the core-four, posting a -1.1 net rating in those 58 minutes. While his production is more of a known commodity, it lacks the productive upside of Timelord. Stevens is unlikely to play Williams and Thompson together: they’ve shared the floor for less than a minute this year. It’s got to be one or the other.
That’s why the consistent play of Fournier and Pritchard becomes so important. Those two are the most reliable backcourt options off the bench and need to be able to provide positive minutes while the core four staggers their rests.
Fournier is incredibly vital here. Since coming to Boston, Fournier has been more hot and cold than Katy Perry. In five of his games, he’s failed to make a 3-pointer, going 0-15. Boston is 1-4 in those contests. In his other three games, he’s been scorching hot, going 13-25 from deep (52 percent). Consistency is key in the playoffs, so making sure there aren’t days where “Never Google” disappears is what will keep the team strong.
Pritchard has been the opposite, the rarely unflappable rookie who is Mr. Steady. His goal as a backup point guard is to play mistake-free, hit open shots, provide resistance at the point of attack on defense and help orchestrate the offense while other stars rest. He’s been sturdy in this role, earning the trust of teammates and coaches alike.
How Stevens structures the rotation will be a big deal. My best guess: the core four start with Williams. Fournier is first off the bench for Tatum mid-way through the quarter while the offense pivots to Kemba and Brown for a minute. With about three minutes to go in the quarter, those two sub out while Tatum and Pritchard come in. They finish the first quarter with Tatum running the show with three competent shooters around him.
Tatum’s time to shine bleeds into the second quarter while Smart gets a quick reprieve. When Brown and Walker both come back, about two or three minutes into the quarter, Tatum gets a breather before he and Smart come back for the final five minutes of the period to finish with the core four together.
Of course, this entire scenario is health-dependent. We need all eight guys to be healthy and ready to go. If they are, the Celts can play with any top-tier team in the East.
Over the final nine games of the regular season, there are two priorities for this team. The first is to remain healthy, a season-long expectation that Stevens and company have been diligent to manage. The second goal, which could shoulder equal importance, is to stay in the top-six of the Eastern Conference. With this season’s new play-in tournament, getting beneath the six-seed leaves far too much up to chance over a one or two-game period.
Make no mistake: this team is built better for the playoffs than they’ve shown during the regular season. That doesn’t mean a championship should be the expectation. It means the top eight guys on this team have purpose, talent and fit that we haven’t been able to consistently see yet.