Grant Williams turned toward any official who would listen as Myles Turner smashed into Jaylen Brown late in the fourth quarter in Thursday’s start to the Celtics’ second half. The call went against Turner as Boston went on to win in overtime, but Williams stood there for the entire game after halftime, logging a season low six minutes against Indiana.
Williams, who averaged over 29 minutes in 19 games entering the break and 27.5 MPG for the season, likely fell down the rotation for matchup reasons against the Pacers’ small ball attack. Moving Jayson Tatum and Jaylen Brown to the forward positions helped the Celtics demoralize Indiana with 20 offensive rebounds to flip a game where the Pacers hit 22 threes.
The rotations underscored a difficult, albeit good problem Joe Mazzulla faces over the final 22 regular season games entering the playoffs. The Celtics didn’t develop a go-to starting lineup when healthy — Marcus Smart, Jaylen Brown, Jayson Tatum, Al Horford and Robert Williams III only started their second game all season on Thursday — and going to the lineup from last year leaves important players like Derrick White and Williams short on playing time.
Sam Hauser surpassed Williams with 13 minutes and hit all three shot attempts while blocking three of the Pacers’, including an impressive chase down rejection of Aaron Nesmith’s fast break layup. After disappearing offensively during a roughly two-month slump, Hauser enters Philadelphia hitting 54.3% of his three-point attempts over his last seven games while flashing the defensive improvement that’s made him a rotation mainstay.
Williams, on the other hand, could still be dealing with an injury. He mentioned a nagging elbow he hurt in Milwaukee before the All-Star break.
“It’s something that, I guess you could say, bending the arm stuff,” Williams told CLNS Media/CelticsBlog that night. “But I still gotta shoot it … I’ve always told myself I can play through everything. It’s not an excuse.”
Mazzulla also adjusted the timing of his rotations during the game in Indiana, playing Tatum for the entire first quarter before relieving him with Hauser for six minutes to start the second. Overtime brought his and Jaylen Brown’s playing time to 42 minutes each, while Malcolm Brogdon closed the game next to Marcus Smart and nearly reached 37 minutes to White’s 25. White still scored 17 points on 6-for-12 shooting, but had been averaging 18.5 points per game across 33.9 MPG in 13 straight starts prior to the break.
Mike Muscala, who started in Milwaukee and has played significant minutes since arriving in Boston, did not play in Indiana. Luke Kornet made a brief first half appearance that went poorly next to Williams before the Celtics staggered their bigs and went small against a primary Pacers unit including Tyrese Haliburton, Buddy Hield, Andrew Nembhard, Nesmith and Turner. That group lit up the Celtics for 157.1 points per 100 possessions in 21 minutes.
Boston wants to play big, but for a starting unit that’s only played in seven games together, it’ll take some time to reacclimate while also balancing the rest the team needs down the stretch. Arguably the best starting lineup in the NBA last year, the Celtics go-to five have been outscored by 6.8 points per 100 through their first 40 minutes played together this season.
“I don’t know what the numbers are, but it feels like we haven’t played with that group a lot this season,” Tatum said. “We know what we can get to. It’s just using these last (22) games or so to get back to that point … it was either I left all my shooting in Utah or was still drunk from vacation. That’s how I played tonight. A good stat line, but not really a good game. Glad we won, and (I) just tried to make plays on both ends so we could win and everybody felt better about themselves.”
The Celtics will inevitably play bigger against the 76ers on Saturday, though it’ll still remain intriguing where Williams falls in the depth chart with Horford and Williams III healthy. Both physical ailments and strategic adjustments have plagued him in recent weeks, not to mention whatever impact trade rumors and his impending free agency had on him all season. He previously mentioned defenses guarding him like never before, and shot 39.5% from the field since the new year began, with his 36.5% mark from three also below his standards.
Thursday’s rotation featured a playoff preview in some ways. In the second half, the core seven Celtics played nearly the entirety of their minutes, leaving 10 for some combination of Williams, Hauser and Muscala. It helps to have those players in back-to-backs, where Williams III and Horford will continue to sit, for whatever rest nights Brown and Tatum take down the stretch, along with any actual injuries that emerge.
A time will come when the Celtics need to solidify not only their lineups and rotations, but the starting five. And all of that appears somewhat up in the air as the playoffs near closer than the second half description would indicate. Mazzulla sees importance in these games.
“I think you definitely put a value on trying to get the No. 1 seed,” he said before the break.