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Rotational spin: what does the first preseason game tell us about the Celtics depth

With six potential starters and a questionable bench, Boston’s first win of the preseason gave us some answers.

Miami Heat (97) Vs. Boston Celtics (110) At TD Garden Photo by Jim Davis/The Boston Globe via Getty Images

Before their first preseason tip, Joe Mazzulla warned not to infer too much from their starting lineup. Instead, throughout training camp so far, the head coach has stressed the strength of their versatility and how multiple players — “we have eight, nine starters” — could open the game.

“I think we have to have a level of flexibility in order for us to maximize our roster on both ends of the floor. And I think flexibility and malleability and the ability to go to different matchups has to be a strength of ours,” Mazzulla said. “So, there will be a time where we say, ‘this is what we’re doing,’ but we have to be as open-minded as possible to play in those different ways.”

On Sunday, the 76ers were without James Harden, Joel Embiid, De’Anthony Melton and Furkan Korkmaz. How would the Celtics attack Philly without their MVPs? Would they go with size or speed? Would Mazzulla even try to win the game? Should we read anything into Game 1 of the preseason?

“Absolutely nothing, please,” Mazzulla said. “I know you guys aren’t gonna listen to me, but whatever I do tomorrow – I almost thought about starting someone way off the bat just to throw you guys off, but I was talked out of it. But don’t read anything into it.”

Sorry, Coach. We’re going to overreact a little.

There were some constants in last year’s rotation that could carry over into this season (even with the drastic changes to the roster):

  • Jayson Tatum as the bridge: At the first TV timeout of the first and third quarters, Tatum would take his first (brief) rest of the game. Between Tatum and Brown, JT is the better playmaker, so keeping him on the floor with the second unit makes sense.
  • Al Horford will get his rest: In addition to not playing in back-to-backs, part of keeping the 37-year-old fresh through the regular season was having the big man open and close quarters with a significant break in between.
  • Mazzulla went with an eight-man rotation: For the most part, the Celtics went three deep off the bench with a ball handler (Malcolm Brogdon), a big (Blake Griffin, Luke Kornet), and a wildcard wing (Grant Williams, Sam Hauser).

It’s the preseason and there’s going to be plenty of experimenting over the next three games, but for the most part, Boston stuck to a similar script Sunday night. Tatum and Horford got early blows and the boy band formerly known as The Bus One Boys of Hauser, Kornet, and the newly minted $30 million man Payton Pritchard served as a hockey-style lineup change to close out the first and third quarters. Jrue Holiday played his first minutes as the 6th man and Oshae Brissett expanded the rotation to 10.

However, there were some surprises. Before dealing Robert Williams and Malcolm Brogdon to Portland for Holiday, ownership and the front office talked about the luxury of having three rotational centers in order to play big more often. The Celtics ultimately opted to open double bigs with Al Horford and Kristaps Porzingis anchoring the front court rather than staggering their minutes. Maybe Horford comes off the bench in some matchups, but so far, it looks like they’ll continue to play big.

“Size. Ability to defend,” Mazzulla said of the Horford-Porzingis duo. “And then on the offensive end, a bunch of spacing.”

What was also striking might be the confidence that the team has in that threesome of Pritchard-Hauser-Kornet. They weren’t filtered in one by one as if they were just band aids until the starters were ready to come back in; they came in as a unit, running their own actions above the break and working Spain pick-and-rolls and flare screens.

Most likely, we won’t see many of the stars tonight in New York against the Knicks on the backend of the back-to-back. There are still questions like whether Holiday and White will start together or could some end-of-bench contributors like Svi Mykhailiuk and rookie Jordan Walsh crack the top-10. But for one night, albeit the first night of many, the new-look Celtics appeared rich with potential.

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