After an incredible mid-season turnaround, the Boston Celtics now find themselves with homecourt advantage through the first two rounds of the NBA Playoffs. Boston finished second in the East this season, trailing only the Miami Heat. They now face a series against the Nets in the first round of the postseason.
But as the Celtics themselves emphasized over the last few weeks of the regular season, they aren’t worried about their opponent. Boston is focusing on themselves. This is a point the team has stressed, and with the long road ahead of them, it’s a mantra that every player on the roster should focus on, too.
The Celtics have a chance to do something special this season, but it’s not a one-man show. Despite Jayson Tatum’s continued greatness, Boston needs the entire roster to be in tip-top shape if they want to make a run in the playoffs. Throughout the entirety of his first year in Boston, Ime Udoka has reiterated the importance of playing as a team. While individual stars often shine in the playoffs, the Celtics cannot stray away from their roots.
The Athletic’s Jason Quick detailed Udoka’s journey throughout the season. He said that “Udoka is urging his Celtics to zig while the rest of the NBA zags.” So, while the rest of the league zigs in the postseason, encouraging their stars to shine and take on a heavier load, Boston’s zagging mentality likely won’t change.
That means ball movement. That means physical defense. That means a team mentality.
And with an organization as team-focused as the Celtics have been this year, getting the best out of everyone on the roster is crucial. As legendary New England Patriots head coach Bill Belichick says, “do your job.” That’s exactly what the Celtics will have to do.
Not every player on the roster will have a job. It was super fun to watch Matt Ryan score his first NBA points, just as it was awesome to see Sam Hauser knock down threes and Luke Kornet throw down lobs toward the end of the season. But with the postseason bringing shortened rotation, it’s almost a given that none of those guys will see regular playoff minutes. This sentiment can be applied to the majority of Boston’s deep bench guys. In turn, Ryan, Hauser, Kornet, Nik Stauskas, Juwan Morgan, Malik Fitts, and Brodric Thomas will be left off this list.
With that being said, the rest of the guys will be separated into tiers. Not everyone has the same job heading into the playoffs. Obviously, players like Tatum and Jaylen Brown will be tasked with a heavier load than others. However, in order for those two to be at their best, every other player in the rotation needs to be competing at the highest level.
Defense is a team game. And while offense can be boiled down to a couple of key stars, Boston’s offensive gameplan this season has centered around ball movement. That takes a team effort as well. So, what does every player in Boston’s regular rotation have to focus on heading into the NBA Playoffs?
Tier 6: The uncertain
Only two players find themselves in this tier - Robert Williams and Aaron Nesmith - but both for different reasons. While Williams’ uncertainty stems from his return to the court, Nesmith’s stems from whether or not he’ll crack the playoff rotation.
Robert Williams: Get healthy
This one was easy. Time Lord’s only job heading into the playoffs is to get back on the court. The sooner he can return, the better. Williams is the anchor of Boston’s defense, and without him, they lose the uniqueness that made their defense so special this year. That’s without even mentioning his offensive importance as a vertical floor-spacer.
That being said, rushing back to the court is the last thing the Celtics want Williams to do. In a recent interview with 98.5 The SportsHub’s Toucher & Rich, Stevens said that while the Celtics would love to have Williams back as soon as possible, “he’s not going to be on the court until we feel 100 percent confident and he feels 100 percent confident that he is ready to play at a really good level.” Based on most reports, Williams will be aiming for a return in the second round. Get well soon, Rob.
Aaron Nesmith: Make shots
In all likelihood, Nesmith won’t crack Udoka’s playoff rotation. But with Williams (reportedly) set to miss the first round, he could get thrown to the wolves a couple of times. It all depends on what Udoka needs.
Nesmith will always bring it on the defensive end. His constant hustle and willingness to put his body on the line make him a valuable plug-and-play guy. But with how loaded Boston already is on the defensive end, Nesmith will have to make his threes if he wants to get any sort of minutes in the playoffs. Since the start of February, Nesmith has shot 36.8 percent from deep. If he can replicate that success in the postseason, there’s a chance Udoka gives him a shot.
Tier 5: Replacement player
Daniel Theis finds himself in a tier of his own due to unique circumstances. With Williams out, his role will continue to increase, and as the rotation shortens in the postseason, he could get even more minutes than he has down the stretch of the regular season.
Daniel Theis: Hold down the fort
In hindsight, Brad Stevens trading for Theis at the trade deadline may have been the most important move of the season. If he hadn’t, then the Celtics would be lost without Williams. Instead, the German big man has proven to be a crucial piece in Boston’s Williams-less rotation, with Udoka throwing him in the starting lineup on most nights. With that trend likely to continue into the playoffs, Theis’ only job will be to hold down the fort.
Since Williams went down, Theis has averaged 13.1 points, 5.9 rebounds, and 1.3 assists while shooting 59.4 percent from the field and 38.5 percent from deep over 28.4 minutes a night. Now, those numbers are a bit inflated considering Tatum and Al Horford missed two of those seven games, but Theis has been excellent nonetheless. He doesn’t have to be perfect, and no one is expecting him to replicate what Williams brings to the table, but if Theis can help the Celtics stay alive until Williams returns, then he will have done his job.
Tier 4: Shooters
As mentioned, a shrunken rotation comes hand-in-hand with postseason basketball. However, these two guys play crucial roles within Boston’s rotation, and if they continue to perform at a high level, their minutes should remain somewhat consistent.
Payton Pritchard: Shoot, shoot, shoot
On the final day of the regular season, Payton Pritchard (41.2 percent) passed Grant Williams (41.1 percent) for the title of the best three-point shooter on the Celtics. Williams led the C’s in three-point percentage from Opening Night to the end of the year, but Pritchard just snuck by him in the finale. The young point guard has been on fire.
Since the beginning of March, Pritchard has been shooting a scorching-hot 47.3 percent from three-point range on 4.9 attempts per game. After struggling to crack the rotation early in the season, Pritchard’s hot stretch has helped cement him as a regular. If he can keep up this stretch of shooting, there’s no reason for his role to diminish.
Grant Williams: Shoot, shoot, defend
For Williams, his job will be eerily similar to Pritchard’s - make shots. Although Pritchard overtook him for the title of three-point king, Williams was Boston’s most consistent shooter all year long. And from the corner, the forward was a machine. He ended the season shooting 46.9 percent on corner threes.
Toward the end of the year, however, Williams struggled from range. Since the start of March, he’s shooting just 32.2 percent from distance. But even if he’s struggling from deep, Williams can still give the Celtics valuable minutes thanks to his defensive versatility. After struggling on the defensive end last season, Williams lost some weight and has been one of the more impressive guys on the defensive end this year. He’s strong enough to guard big men but also quick enough to keep up with guards. So while his primary job will be to make his threes, he also needs to be a plus defender for Boston.
Tier 3: The do-it-all duo
These two guys are going to be asked to do a lot in the postseason. They probably won’t play the 40 minutes a night that the three players ahead of them could, but when they are on the court, Udoka will have very high expectations for them.
Derrick White: Do-it-all-guard
Despite joining the team less than three months ago, Derrick White will play a big-time role in the playoffs, and it’s not hard to see why. His past relationships with Udoka, Tatum, Brown, and Smart have made the transition seamless. White has averaged 27.4 minutes since joining the Celtics, and with everything he brings on both sides of the floor, he’ll be one of the guys Udoka trusts the most come playoff time.
When White first joined the Celtics, he struggled right out of the gate. However, during the last three weeks of the season, the veteran point guard picked up the pace in a big way. Since March 22, White has averaged 12.9 points, 3.6 rebounds, and 4.1 assists while shooting 46.2 percent from the field and 48.9 percent from deep. That’s the sort of production the Celtics would love from him in the playoffs, and that’s without even mentioning his impact on the defensive side of the ball. White will be asked to make shots, create offense for others, and defend at a high level for the entirety of the playoffs.
Al Horford: Do-it-all big man
This title doesn’t necessarily do Al Horford justice. At the age of 35 years old, Horford has completely revitalized his career, after most people counted him out thanks to his time with the Philadelphia 76ers. In Boston, though, Horford has been put into a place where he can succeed, and in turn, the Celtics have reaped the rewards. Heading into the playoffs, however, Horford will be asked to take on a larger role than he has all season.
With Williams sidelined, Horford’s role as the primary center is more important than ever. Udoka has been starting Theis alongside Horford, but he’s a very different frontcourt partner than Williams. Horford will still face the task of guarding opposing bigs, but without Time Lord there to clean up mistakes, the Celtics will be asking for a lot more from him. And offensively, he’ll still be asked to make shots and make plays for his teammates, per usual. Similar to White, Horford will need to be a jack-of-all-trades in the postseason.
Tier 2: The 40+ minute guys
In the postseason, when everything is on the line, players are often expected to play a ton of minutes. And in especially tight games, some guys could see their playing time creep toward the 40-minute mark. Those sort of minutes are reserved for only the most important players, though, and these two guys fall under that category.
Marcus Smart: Point guard and DPOY
This is the same role Marcus Smart has played all year long. Heading into the season, when Udoka said that Smart was Boston’s point guard, a lot of people were skeptical. But as our friend Andrew Doxy at CelticsBlog will surely tell you, the real ones never doubted him. Smart finished the year averaging a career-high 5.9 assists and ranked 15th in the NBA in total assists. In his first season as Boston’s full-time point guard, Smart thrived.
And on top of that, he managed to put together a Defensive Player of the Year-caliber season. Smart ended the year with the fifth-best opponent’s field goal percentage among players who notched at least 1500 minutes (43.2 percent) and finished in the top ten in deflections (206), charges drawn (16), and loose balls recovered (79). He is the embodiment of hustle and that’s exactly what the Celtics will need from him in the postseason.
Jaylen Brown: Secondary star
It seems disrespectful to boil down Brown’s role to this title, but at the end of the day, this is what he’s going to be asked to be. However, not every team has a second option that is capable of dropping 50. Tatum and Brown form one of the most dynamic duos in the NBA, and while Tatum will almost always be asked to take and make the big shots, Brown’s scoring is a crucial piece of Boston’s offensive gameplan. (Especially his red-hot first quarters.)
Brown won’t just be asked to score, however. With how well other guys have performed this season, Brown’s improvements have flown under the radar. The young star posted a career-high 231 assists this season and recorded the third-best opponent’s field goal percentage among players who logged at least 1500 minutes (42.7 percent). His playmaking improved tenfold and his defense is as solid as ever. In the spirit of Grant Williams’ nicknames, Brown will have to be the Robin to Tatum’s Batman, but should also be ready to step up and be Batman when needed.
Tier 1: The superstar
Every championship team needs one. Giannis Antetokounmpo for the Milwaukee Bucks in 2021. LeBron James for the Los Angeles Lakers in 2020. Kawhi Leonard for the Toronto Raptors in 2019. Tatum has to be that guy for the Celtics.
Jayson Tatum: Be Jayson Tatum
When it comes down to it, Tatum’s only job is to do him. Throughout the second half of the season, he’s played at an unreal level, and during the last month of the season, he was one of the most dominant players in basketball. Since March 1, Tatum has averaged 31.0 points, 6.9 rebounds, and 5.2 assists while shooting 52.6 percent from the field and 43.1 percent from three-point range. If he can carry that level of play into the postseason, the Celtics will be a true title contender.
He doesn’t just bring it on the offensive end, though. Tatum led the NBA in defensive win shares this season (4.6) and has been a key cog in Udoka’s defensive scheme. And while both this and his offensive production are important, Tatum just needs to be him. The 24-year-old has established himself as an elite defender and one of the best offensive talents in the NBA. That’s what the Celtics need from him. They need Jayson Tatum.
Through the first few months of the season, the Celtics were one of the laughing stocks of the NBA. But now, they have a serious shot at making a deep playoff run. If they want to get there, though, they’re going to need everybody on the roster to play their part.
Williams needs to get healthy, the shooters need to shoot, and the top guys need to continue to buy in the way they have all season. This roster has given new life to the saying “greater than the sum of its parts.” And heading into the offseason, each of those parts needs to do continue to do their job.