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'It doesn't matter who's playing': How the Celtics' low-profile moves kept them afloat

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Celtics take Game 1 in OT against the Bucks (1:49)

Terry Rozier and Khris Middleton trade clutch buckets in the final seconds of regulation to force overtime, but it's the Celtics who come out on top in a 113-107 Game 1 win over the Bucks. (1:49)

BOSTON -- During a rare quiet moment amid the Boston Celtics' summer of roster-turnover chaos, Danny Ainge stopped to study his new-look squad.

The Celtics had signed free-agent Gordon Hayward earlier that month, but Ainge still couldn't shake a feeling that his team needed another ball handler with Isaiah Thomas' lingering hip injury. (Ainge was unaware that almost at that exact moment, Kyrie Irving was asking the Cleveland Cavaliers to find the trade that would deliver him to Boston in August.)

So Ainge phoned Shane Larkin, a player the Celtics had liked heading into the 2013 draft, and inquired about his availability after a solid season with Spanish club Baskonia. Larkin had recently signed an offer sheet with rival club Barcelona, but when Baskonia matched, it opened a 48-hour window in which Larkin also could explore opportunities outside of Europe.

"Danny called me," Larkin said, "and was like, 'We have a player that may have some injury issues, so we might have an opening for a player to come and play some minutes. How long do you have?'"

Larkin's reply: "I got about 36 hours."

Ainge, Boston's president of basketball operations, called back the next day and Larkin agreed to a one-year, $1.5 million deal to return to the NBA. At that moment, the pact made little sense for both sides: The Celtics already had 15 guaranteed contracts and a point guard depth chart that was helmed by Thomas, Marcus Smart and Terry Rozier.

Nine months later, with Boston's roster decimated by injuries, Larkin is now an integral part of the Celtics' playoff rotation and the only pure ball handler behind now-starter Rozier.

In Sunday's Game 1 of a first-round series against the Milwaukee Bucks, Larkin logged the sixth-most minutes on the team and -- despite a first-half rough patch during which he committed a rash of turnovers -- chipped in five points and was plus-12 during his floor time (only Jaylen Brown had a higher mark at plus-18).

"You can think it's going to be easy -- you may think that -- but we're still going to fight. The guys on this roster just keep fighting."
Shane Larkin, on opponents facing the injury-riddled Celtics

Ainge has made plenty of big-splash moves during his tenure, and it would be tough to top the summers of 2007 (landing Ray Allen and Kevin Garnett) or even 2013 (signing Brad Stevens, trading Garnett and Paul Pierce for the assets that have helped assemble the current roster).

But in addition to Trader Danny's summer of 2017 overhaul, it was his lower-profile moves that have given injury-depleted Boston a safety net, and a real chance to hang around this postseason.

"Our mentality has always been: It doesn't matter who's playing, we're going to go out there and we're going to play hard as hell and play together." Larkin said.

"And whatever happens, happens."


AINGE'S OFFSEASON OVERHAUL left only four players from last year's conference finalist. Here's a snapshot of Boston's busy summer:

  • Traded the No. 1 pick in the draft to Philadelphia to move down to No. 3, where Ainge drafted soon-to-be All-Rookie first-teamer Jayson Tatum and got a future first-round pick for his troubles (the Lakers will convey their 2018 first-round pick on the slim chance it vaults to Nos. 2 or 3 in the lottery; otherwise, Boston will get the Sacramento Kings' 2019 first-round pick if it's not No. 1). Tatum, unfazed by the bigger stage, scored 19 points in his playoff debut Sunday.

  • Drafted Semi Ojeleye with the 37th pick in the draft and watched the rookie emerge as a sturdy NBA-ready defender whom the team can confidently throw at players such as the Bucks' Giannis Antetokounmpo. (During the regular season, only Al Horford guarded Antetokounmpo more often than Ojeleye during four meetings between the teams.)

  • Convinced All-Star Gordon Hayward to sign a four-year, $128 million contract, making it the second straight summer Ainge had landed one of the premier free agents on the market after landing Horford in 2016.

  • Acquired Marcus Morris from the Detroit Pistons in a deal in which the Celtics moved Avery Bradley to clear the necessary cap space to sign Hayward. Morris overcame early-season knee troubles to be a crucial contributor and scored 21 points in Boston's Game 1 win Sunday.

  • Signed Daniel Theis out of Germany to a minimum-salary contract. Theis emerged as a key rotation player before tearing his meniscus in mid-March.

  • Signed Aron Baynes to a one-year, $4.3 million deal after he turned down a $6.5 million option in Detroit. Baynes has cemented himself as a full-time starter who adds muscle to a back line and eases the defensive load on Horford.

  • Traded for All-Star Kyrie Irving, who flirted with a 50/40/90 season despite playing on a bothersome left knee that eventually required season-ending surgery.

Adding top-end talent like Hayward and Irving was supposed to deplete Boston's depth. But Boston's youngest players have routinely stepped up this season, including in big-time situations.

Like during Sunday's Game 1, when Khris Middleton's overtime-forcing heave could have broken the Celtics' spirit. Instead, Boston -- spearheaded by emerging third-year guard Rozier -- came out and finished off its win.

"Sometimes I think they're at their best when those things happen, you know?" Stevens said after Game 1. "I think it's just a resilient group of kids.

"Not kids -- men."


HALL OF FAME NFL coach Bill Parcells famously opined after his tenure with the New England Patriots: "If they want you to cook the dinner, at least they ought to let you shop for some of the groceries."

But for these Celtics, Stevens adheres to the same "In Danny We Trust" mantra as the team's fan base. And while the coach has plenty of input in personnel decisions, he's perfectly fine with Ainge having the final say.

"Danny is not going to hesitate to do what he thinks is best," Stevens said. "Partly because he's Danny and he's got big-time guts, right?"

Stevens has endured almost perpetual roster change throughout his five seasons in green, but maybe nothing as jarring as last summer's overhaul, which culminated with the Celtics dealing Thomas, Jae Crowder and the Brooklyn Nets' 2018 first-round pick to the Cavaliers in exchange for Irving.

So while Ainge shops for the groceries, Stevens is like a "Chopped" contestant whipping up all sorts of fancy dishes with the different ingredients he's been presented. It's a partnership that leaves Boston poised for a long and successful stay as a prime contender in the East.

But even after the injury bug raided the pantry this season, the Celtics are eager to show that the cupboards aren't exactly bare.


LARKIN CHUCKLES NOW recalling how, just days after finalizing his deal with the Celtics, Ainge traded for Irving.

"It was like, 'Well, my role just changed,'" Larkin said.

Despite being a healthy scratch in Boston's home opener, Larkin got an extended second-half run two nights later in Philadelphia and put up 10 points and four assists over 19 minutes as Boston rallied for its first win of the season.

"Sometimes I think they're at their best when those things happen, you know? I think it's just a resilient group of kids. Not kids -- men."
Brad Stevens, on the Celtics facing adversity

After the team landed back in Boston, Stevens called Larkin to talk about his role.

"He called me and he was like, 'Listen, I don't know what your situation is going to be like this year, I don't know how much you're going to play, and when you're going to play, how many minutes it's going to be. But I just need you to be ready whenever I call on you,'" Larkin said.

Larkin's play was indeed sporadic from there, and he battled both a knee issue and illness that limited his time later in the season. But he always stayed ready for Stevens, and he believes many of the younger players did the same.

It's a big reason why Boston won 55 games and earned the No. 2 seed in the East. And it's a bigger reason why, despite all the injuries, the 11 healthy players believe they still can make plenty of noise in the postseason.

"We know people are saying, 'They're a 2-seed, but that's the best 2-seed you can play. They're missing four key guys.'" Larkin said.

"You can think it's going to be easy -- you may think that -- but we're still going to fight. The guys on this roster just keep fighting."