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Celtics weighing multiple starting lineups as flexibility becomes camp theme

Joe Mazzulla said this week that the Celtics have 7-9 starting caliber players and the team could court starters by committee.

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

BOSTON — Joe Mazzulla sounded irked by yet another starting lineup question. He told reporters before the preseason began not to read into who Boston starts, even considering a surprise addition to the lineup for last Sunday’s opener against Philadelphia.

Jrue Holiday ultimately came off the bench while Boston’s regular starters reunited with Kristaps Porzingis replacing Robert Williams. The team’s top six players sat out in New York, then Sam Hauser and Holiday started in place of resting Jaylen Brown and Jayson Tatum.

“At the end of the day, it doesn’t really matter (who starts),” Mazzulla said on Friday. “What matters is we have to play hard and we have to execute ... if we get so worked up about the first five minutes, what’re we gonna do for the following 43?”

The Celtics plan to mix-and-match starting lineups this season, with a focus on sustaining for the long haul and inevitable injuries leading to those changes anyway. Mazzulla told the team to remain flexible early in camp, especially with such important players potentially left out on any given night. Al Horford has only came off the bench 14 times in his NBA career. Derrick White thrived as a starter last season. Holiday — who could come off the bench according to multiple reports — arrived as the team’s marquee offseason addition as a starting point guard on a championship team.

That dilemma speaks to the conversation of sacrifice, a major Celtics training camp theme. Kristaps Porziņģis brought it up specifically after Saturday’s practice. It became the lesson that resonated most with Tatum from his offseason workouts and conversations with Paul Pierce.

A thinner, more star-studded team will have to find areas to give to win. Horford expressed a willingness, for the first time, to taking that back seat on Friday after sounding non-committal on Media Day.

“It’s a part of it,” Horford said. “We’re a very versatile group here, we have a lot of guys who can do different things. So that’s something that I think is a strength of our group, and our guys, I can say that we’re all pretty comfortable with that.”

Porziņģis, unlikely to ever sit unless he’s taking a night off, set a sacrificial tone by accepting a two-year extension for less than the max and giving up opportunities to star in Washington and Utah. He chose Boston, knowing he’d have to fit in next to Jaylen Brown and Tatum and made the difficult decision to sit out from Latvia’s run in the FIBA World Cup to begin training camp at full health.

Porziņģis admitted he might’ve powered through the plantar fasciitis if he found himself in a lower-stakes situation. He also reflected on the lack of self awareness when he entered the league, trying everything on the floor, acting ignorantly and not assessing areas of his game like posting-up that needed improvement. Entering last year, he took a look in the mirror and it produced his best season yet.

Saturday’s practice reflected how far he came, spending roughly an hour after practice receiving treatment to stabilize his foot, hips and increasing his strength. Mazzulla and Horford praised his defensive efforts this week, while Porziņģis began thinking about how the offensive dynamic will play out — confident that it’ll occur easily.

“You’re just playing with these other talented players that you know can make stuff happen,” he said. “You can just be there to support if needed. Honestly, I’m just gonna play my game and everybody’s gonna play their game and if all of our stats dip a little bit ... who cares. We’re here to win.”

Brown and Tatum set the tone in the offseason to instill a defensive emphasis for the team, which will inherently require them to expend more energy on that side of the ball than on offense. Their commitment to giving the ball up, moving and making teammates better could become the greatest swing factor in whether the team wins a championship, especially since they’re the most pivotal figures and voices in the room with Marcus Smart gone. Their willingness to embrace vocal leadership — not natural for either — represents a different kind of sacrifice.

Both players also expressed interest in deferring some of their ball time to Holiday. Brown noted his acclimation to an off-ball role as a form of sacrifice, while Tatum’s passing improvement will represent his desire to play team basketball.

While not necessarily the flaw in last year’s team, Grant Williams’ demotion from the rotation, Smart’s constant presence in crunch time and struggles Malcolm Brogdon faced transitioning to the sixth man role all could’ve been addressed early so they didn’t creep up as coaching difficulties later.

Whatever role those expectations for playing time contributed to last year’s demise appear absent in camp this year. Everyone knows their role, or how it could change, with Brown and Tatum positioned to pull teammates in, make them feel empowered and willing to accept whatever adjustments Mazzulla decides.

“I know if you asked (Tatum),” Mazzulla said. “He’d much rather win a championship than win a MVP, and that’s the process we’re taking. What’d you have to do to make the people around us better? ... no one in this gym have we had to motivate yet. I think that’s the sign of where we’re trying to get to, Jayson, Jaylen, Al, Derrick, Kristaps. Those guys set the standard and everybody else falls in line.”

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