Over the years, I’ve learned to put my faith in Brad Stevens, President of Basketball Operations for the Boston Celtics. Never once doubting him, Stevens has brilliantly put together one of the best rosters this franchise has seen in years. Undefeated on the season, this team is still yet to reach half their full potential together.
After Boston failed to secure an NBA title last season, the C’s overhauled their entire roster with the acquisitions of Kristaps Porzingis and Jrue Holiday. The departure of Marcus Smart, Grant Williams, Robert Williams, and Malcom Brogdon left Celtics fans heartbroken and skeptical of the upcoming year. Although it's still very early in the season, the C’s starting five is extremely versatile, and are very much the real deal.
Over 74 seasons, no starting lineup has compared to the 1986-1987 Celtics. Yes, Boston won the NBA championship in 1985-1986, which was considered one of the best teams of all time. Statistically speaking, Dennis Johnson, Danny Ainge, Larry Bird, Kevin McHale, and Robert Parish were one of the most dynamic forces in C’s history, one that averaged a combined 99.9 points a game. Although this group never won an NBA title, it still remains one of Boston's most prolific units in franchise history.
Then there was the 2008 crew who took home Banner 17. Rajon Rondo, Ray Allen, Paul Pierce, Kevin Garnett, and Kendrick Perkins were a force to be reckoned with on both sides of the floor. With Allen as a three-point sniper, the Celtics pentad averaged 73.3 points per game and Kevin Garnett took home Defensive Player of the Year.
This season, head coach Joe Mazzulla has been vocal on the various rotations regarding the top-6 players. So far, the C’s have stuck with a smaller lineup with Jrue Holiday, Derrick White, Jaylen Brown, Jayson Tatum, and Kristaps Porzingis. After their 119-111 win over the Miami Heat Friday night, we saw flashes of how special this starting five can be, and their unique skillsets.
What can’t this top five do? Each of these players can shoot, attack to the basket, iso, post-up, defend — you name it. Where so many teams are one-dimensional, these guys can attack in several ways. Through two games, Boston’s starters are averaging 103.5 points per game and that’s with limited time and chemistry on the court together.
All five of Mazzulla’s starters finished in double figures, including a combined 111 points scored. In a collaborative team effort, they finished with a combined 39 rebounds, 16 assists, seven steals, and five blocks. Aside from stars Jayson Tatum and Jaylen Brown, this Celtics team is one of most versatile in the league, especially on the defensive end of the ball.
“It feels great,” Tatum told reporters. “It shows the depth of our team, we have a really talented team. Guys can make shots, can make plays. This was a really great team win, and it felt good to win this way.”
For Tatum, he solely doesn’t have to carry this team single-handedly night after night anymore. No disrespect to Robert Williams, but this team has six capable players that can take over offensively, as well as defensively. That’s something the Celtics struggled with last year, considering Williams didn’t have a strong post-up game. Now Boston has two bigs that can stretch and shoot, as well as protect the rim.
In a league that’s so dependent on the three-point shot, it’s a relief to know any one of these players can hit beyond the perimeter. For Boston, defensive stops in the backcourt have allowed the C’s to capitalize on offensive opportunities. This year, Boston seems to be much more efficient around the screens, as well as drop coverage.
“Yeah, I think, with our team, especially sometimes when we go small, we have a lot of pride in guarding,” said Tatum. “We switch a lot from guarding forwards to guards to point guards. Whatever Joe wants me to do on a nightly basis.”
One aspect that makes this team so great is their ability to take over games in crunch time. Once a problem in previous years, Boston has been able to compete down the stretch. This time, it was Derrick White’s time to shine late in the fourth quarter against Miami. He finished with 28 points, including 14 in the fourth quarter alone. It’s really hard to forget the man that led the Celtics to Game 7 of the Eastern Conference Finals last year.
Acquired after the Damian Lillard trade to Milwaukee, Jrue Holiday teams up with Derrick White as one of the best two-way back court duos in the league. Holiday held opposing matchups to just 5-of-12 (41 percent) shooting, and Tyler Herro, just 33 percent from downtown. Both were excellent in transition defense, and are extremely fun to watch. Derrick White alone, had three blocks against Miami.
"I told Jrue it was crazy his UCLA man tried to dunk on him."— Celtics on NBC Sports Boston (@NBCSCeltics) October 28, 2023
Derrick White talks friendly battle with him and Jrue Holiday for blocks pic.twitter.com/i7OaqeiZFt
With a new backcourt duo, White now has the freedom to lead the Celtics backcourt. Post game on Friday, White admitted him and Jrue have a friendly competition who can have the most blocks this season. Between the two of them, the guards had a combined four blocks.
“During the game he was like, ‘we’re gonna see who has more blocks at the end of the year,’” said White. “I told Jrue that it was crazy that his UCLA man tried to dunk on him. He’s a special defender, so it’s a lot of fun out there.”
For these two guys, Mazzulla now has the flexibility to play both players on and off the ball. Both have the adaptability to create their own shot and find looks at the basket. For once, Boston has playmakers that can step up and close out in late games. It’s just a matter of time before the two build chemistry on and off the court.
If you think you're going up for a bucket, and Derrick White is chasing you... good luck with that pic.twitter.com/nZabwnRtaf— Celtics on NBC Sports Boston (@NBCSCeltics) October 28, 2023
Jayson Tatum and Jaylen Brown, who both averaged career highs in points last season, are joined by Kristaps Porzingis, whose presence alone opens up floor space, giving Tatum and Brown room to post up and drive inside. Tatum has greatly improved his shots, his post up game, along with his handles. Doubling both Tatum or Porzingis has mostly left guys open, which is the beauty of being able space the floor.
The first two games haven’t been all butterflies and roses. JB and Tatum have shown their weaknesses, many have of which carried over from previous seasons. Instead of relying on the two of them, the other three have picked up the slack.
Often at times, the Celtics’ offense and defense has looked stagnant and congested at times. As well as this starting lineup has played, their potential is absolutely terrifying for opposing teams. Stacked with talent, their goal is to win a championship and make everyone around them better. After considerable roster changeups over the years, is this finally the starting five that will be remembered for years to come? Only time will tell with 80 more games to go.