The Celtics searched for a big man leading up to Thursday’s trade deadline who could play alone or together with Al Horford or Kristaps Porziņģis. That led them to Xavier Tillman Sr., a low-cost rotation center struggling on offense through a disastrous season in Memphis, but remaining among the highest-rated defenders in the NBA. He makes an expiring $1.9 million and cost a pair of second round picks.
“We’ve always liked Xavier. He is, obviously, big and strong, moves his feet well laterally, so he’s been able to guard a number of people at a number of different positions well,” Stevens said on Friday after the deadline. “Above that, he plays the game for the right reasons. He competes, he passes, thinks the game well. All the stuff that we’ve been fortunate with the guys that we have around our best players that they’ve brought to the table. He knows how to play. We’re excited to have him. He’s a guy we’ve always liked, and thought could be of help. We’ll see how (his role) all plays itself out. At the end of the day, what it does is it gives us a lot of flexibility.”
Joe Mazzulla believes the newest Celtic will have to get caught up with the team’s quick-changing defensive style as he acclimates to the team. Tillman joins a front court already including Luke Kornet, a Mazzulla favorite who logged 21 minutes on Wednesday while Horford joined the starting lineup., along with small ball option Oshae Brissett. Neither Mazzulla nor Stevens gave a clear picture, yet, on how Tillman will fit in.
His presence, nonetheless, provides valuable insurance against Porziņģis and Horford missing playoff time with short or long-term injuries, along with a defensive change of pace against star bigs. Tillman has guarded Anthony Davis and Karl-Anthony Towns in separate playoff series, while averaging 8.7 points, 8.0 rebounds and 3.2 assists per game in his latest appearance, six games against the Lakers.
“We’ve started with a quote, smaller lineup, most of the year, but we play several minutes a game with a big lineup,” Stevens said. “It hopefully gives us more options to do either.”
Porziņģis agreed with Mazzulla that Tillman could face a learning curve, defensively, as Mike Muscala explained following his arrival one year ago. Tillman brings a skill set more compatible to the things the Celtics do on defense, whether switching, changing matchups in-game or guarding odd positions to set up switches or establish rim protection. Tillman averaged 1.2 blocks and 1.0 steals per game in Memphis this year, 2.2 and 1.8, respectively, per 36 minutes. Emblematic of his ability to make the most of short minutes.
He’s not as bad as the abysmal numbers that stacked up given the demoralizing injuries the Grizzlies suffered, beginning with Brandon Clarke and Steven Adams last year that continued with Ja Morant and Marcus Smart into 2023-24. Tillman finished in the fourth percentile of pick-and-rollers while shooting 40.8% from the field, 22.6% from three and 41.9% at the free throw line. That probably creates some level of offense, defense and offensive rebounding tradeoffs between Kornet, Tillman and Brissett.
Trade restraints on Boston restricted the team’s ability to add a more dynamic, expensive big, like Kelly Olynyk, while Stevens held a personal preference not to interfere with the team’s current rotation. He enjoyed the way the bench, in particular, played together through the first half of the season, and once the Celtics found their lone need in Tillman, shifted to assessing prospects on their rookie deals they had previous interest. That allowed them to add Jaden Springer from Philadelphia before the deadline, while no move for a wing signaled growing belief in Sam Hauser and Brissett.
Neemias Queta will not fill the 15th roster spot for now, with 13 NBA games remaining on his two-way allowance, while Stevens will consider all the options available to fill it without any rush. That player won’t likely join the rotation, he added.
“Similar to what I’ve been doing, great on defense, great at moving the ball, great at screening-setting, great at rebounding,” Tillman said on Friday. “I don’t think I’m reinventing the wheel here ... coming out of film session, that’s something I was learning, the nuances and how they like to operate and stuff like that. It’ll take a little bit, but I don’t think it’ll be too long or too hard for me to get adjusted to it.”