With their win over the Golden State Warriors on Thursday night, the Boston Celtics got over what seemed to be a major mental hurdle. After falling to the Warriors in last year’s NBA Finals and then getting punked in their first showdown of the season on December 10, they finally punched back.
But the game signified more than just a win over the Warriors. It was also the first time Boston rolled out their esteemed starting lineup that dominated the NBA last year of Marcus Smart, Jaylen Brown, Jayson Tatum, Al Horford, and Robert Williams.
Among all five-man units that logged at least 200 minutes together last season, that starting five ranked first in net rating (24.6) and defensive rating (94.2). And while reassembling that lineup may improve Boston’s ceiling, it also raises an entirely new set of questions.
The biggest of those questions is how Joe Mazzulla will dole out minutes within the Celtics’ guard rotation. Smart is the clear-cut starter, but past that, Derrick White and Malcolm Brogdon will both need ample opportunities as well. Up to this point in the season, all three have been able to see plenty of playing time, as White has been a part of the starting lineup. But now, things will have to change.
In their first game as co-bench leaders, Brogdon got the call. He played 35:46 to White’s 17:28 - which marked his third-lowest minutes total of the season and the lowest excluding blowouts. That being said, both sides treated the matchup like a playoff game, so minute totals were a bit exaggerated all around.
Tatum played a career-high 48:07, Brown eclipsed the 40-minute barrier, and both Smart and Horford played over 37 minutes as well. Mazzulla kept his rotation to just nine guys (including Luke Kornet’s mere 7:30 of court time), and Steve Kerr shortened his to just eight players.
At the same time, however, this game can be used as the prime example of when each guard will be used. In this case, Brown and Tatum both struggled to find their footing. This left Boston scrambling for answers on the offensive end, and Brogdon answered the call as he has many times this year. He didn’t shoot particularly well, either, but his three made three-pointers and superior shot creation provided a needed boost.
White, on the other hand, failed to record a single field goal. He ended the night with a singular point, shooting 0-of-6 from the floor and 0-of-3 from distance. A lack of shot-making kept him off the court and moving forward, that will likely continue.
Having both White and Brogdon off the bench is a problem most teams around the league would love to have. Both are capable of being starting point guards in the NBA, yet the Celtics employ them both off the pine. And because of that, they can be deployed in different scenarios when the time is right.
Against the Warriors, the situation called for offense. Tatum’s and Brown’s combined 15-for-45 shooting meant Brogdon was needed. His offensive spark was far more than a luxury - it was a necessity. Over his last 10 games, Brogdon is averaging 16.6 points on 48.3% shooting from the field and 49.0% shooting from deep. He’s proven that he can be an offensive outlet when Boston needs him to be.
Meanwhile, White’s strength lies on the defensive end. He can hit threes and drive to the paint well, but when the Celtics need to lock down the perimeter, that’s when White’s number will get called. White is tied for 29th in the NBA in blocks (41), he ranks fifth in overall plus/minus (+264), and the Celtics allow 5.8 fewer points per 100 possessions when he’s on the court, per Cleaning the Glass. If Boston’s stars are locked in and they need to focus on getting stops, White’s the guard for the job.
Sometimes, it will be more complicated than that. If White is having a hot shooting night, there’s no reason to take him out of the game. The same can be said for Brogdon, especially if his backcourt counterpart is struggling. And, to take it a step further, if Smart is having a rough game, both are perfectly capable of playing alongside one another.
Mazzulla’s rotational decisions won’t be easy. Sam Hauser completely fell off the map against Golden State, and Grant Williams played just 12:49. Those are other issues in and of themselves. But as for the guard position, it could be as simple as offense vs. defense.