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Finals matchup a lesson for the Celtics in winning on the margins

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Boston can learn a few things from the Suns and Bucks about surrounding their stars with the right players.

Phoenix Suns v Boston Celtics Photo by Adam Glanzman/Getty Images

In Jayson Tatum and Jaylen Brown, the Boston Celtics have their two All-Star pillars locked in for the foreseeable future. That’s the most difficult and important part of the championship-building process, and the franchise has already completed it.

But, as this past season showed, the dynamic duo alone is not enough. They’re the most valuable members of the Celtics, but in a sport that requires them to share the court with three other players and share a roster with thirteen others, those teammates must be able to contribute.

Boston learned that the hard way this past season with inconsistent production by many rotation regulars. Kemba Walker never rediscovered his All-Star form. Marcus Smart’s offense reputedly comes and goes. Big men Tristan Thompson and Robert Williams III dealt with injuries. Evan Fournier dealt with COVID upon arriving at the deadline. And the rest of the roster was ill-suited to bring much to the table consistently.

The result was an underwhelming .500 record and a first-round exit.

It’s no hot take to suggest the Celtics must improve their supporting cast for those reasons, but how they do that is a question worth asking.

Boston isn’t exactly a desirable free-agent destination. Even if it was, the Celtics are in no position to hand out big contracts with the extensions signed by Brown and Tatum having already kicked in or about to.

2021 aside, they have all their future first-round picks, but those can only bring back so much value when not attached with an actual player, the likes of which Boston either can’t trade—at least not in a deal that would even tweak their title odds—or wouldn’t want to.

Thus, the predicament they’re currently in. How does a team with minimal wiggle room for improvement get better? They should start by taking a look at the two teams currently competing in the NBA Finals.

The Milwaukee Bucks and Phoenix Suns are powered by their best players, a combined list of All-Stars, MVPs, and future Hall-of-Famers. But dig deeper into their respective playoff runs, and you’ll see the impact of the “other guys” time and time again.

Kevin Durant dominated Brooklyn’s second-round matchup against Milwaukee, but P.J. Tucker’s tenacious defensive effort made him work for every bucket. The cumulative toll of which was evident when KD drew nothing but air on a potential game-tying shot in overtime of Game 7.

The Bucks are 6-2 when Pat Connaughton converts multiple looks from beyond the arc. Connaughton’s even helped out on the offensive glass, hauling in four offensive rebounds in the Game 3 victory over Atlanta.

On the other side of the matchup, Phoenix was without Chris Paul for the first two games of the Western Conference Finals, yet headed to LA with a 2-0 series lead thanks largely to Cameron Payne. Stepping into the starting role, Payne dished out 18 assists to just one turnover in the first two games, which also included an explosive 29-point effort in the one-point Game 2 victory.

On numerous occasions has Torrey Craig subbed into the game and helped the Suns with his defensive effort. According to the NBA’s matchup data, Paul George shot 3-of-12 with Craig as the closest defender over the six-game series. LeBron James was 2-of-5 as the Lakers scored just 20 points in a little over 24 partial possessions.

These four players all share something in common. Any team could’ve had them.

Tucker was acquired for D.J. Augustin and D.J. Wilson, a first-rounder, and the right to swap second-round picks. Connaughton is signed for less than six million a year through 2023. Payne was playing overseas for a good chunk of last season. The Suns only had to relinquish cash consideration to acquire Craig from the Bucks.

If superstars are the foundation of a championship team, players like these might only be the final touches on the finished product. Maybe that means they’re expendable, but these playoffs have certainly shown us that doesn’t render them useless.

One of the Celtics’ underlying issues is that no such player is currently on the roster. Who is the shrewd under-the-radar signing who makes a bigger-than-expected impact? Where is a trade that capitalizes on a buy-low opportunity?

It’s a challenge significantly easier said than done. It might result in more misses than hits. But if these Finals are any indication, fortune favors the bold.