Boston Celtics coach Brad Stevens often reminds us when he shuffles the team's starting lineup that the most important thing isn't so much who starts, but trying to identify the combinations that give his team the best chance to thrive over the course of a 48-minute game.
The natural inclination on the heels of Boston's 108-97 triumph over the New York Knicks on Tuesday will be to suggest that shifting rookie Marcus Smart to starting point guard provided the spark that helped the Celtics snap a three-game losing streak.
That's not wrong. Smart's early 3-point shooting and sustained defensive intensity played a big part in Boston's triumph. The rookie logged a career-high 36 minutes, 43 seconds of floor time and was a team-best plus-16 in plus/minus on the night.
It also helped that Avery Bradley (game-high 26 points on 11-of-14 shooting) was unconscious with his jump shot and Jared Sullinger (22 points, 9 rebounds, career-high 6 assists) started to break out of his recent funk with a focus on generating shots near the basket (13 of his 19 attempts came near the hoop).
But maybe the most interesting thing that happened in Tuesday's lineup shuffle was that the player demoted to the second unit might have been put in a position to best utilize his versatility.
Jae Crowder, the only player remaining from the return haul in December's Rajon Rondo trade, played 29 minutes off the bench and finished with 13 points on 5-of-8 shooting with four rebounds and an assist. He was a bench-best plus-8 in plus/minus.
The Celtics have experimented in recent weeks with going small, most notably with little-used Gerald Wallace playing power forward. With Crowder now coming off the bench, Stevens was able to mix and match his personnel, often running Crowder at the 4, and the 24-year-old's ability to hold his own there might have helped Boston discover a sustainable small-ball lineup.
"I thought [the starters] played well on both ends," Stevens said. "Maybe more encouraging is the way that Jae can give us versatility off the bench."
With Kelly Olynyk sidelined by an ankle injury, the Celtics haven't had nearly as much lineup versatility recently. Brandon Bass has stuck with the starting unit in large part because Boston has needed Tyler Zeller's size off the bench.
But Boston got a jolt with Crowder running at the 4 on Tuesday. The ball movement was crisp, reflected in how Sullinger, Turner, Bradley and Smart -- his running mates in one small-ball lineup -- combined for 18 of Boston's 23 assists.
And Crowder himself, maybe with some pressure removed in a reserve role, played one of his best games in nearly the month that's passed since his honeymoon as a starter ended. His energy helped fuel the bench unit, including when Stevens stayed small with a reserve lineup that featured Crowder, James Young and Marcus Thornton.
Regardless of his role, this is exactly the sort of effort and energy the Celtics need from Crowder on a nightly basis. His presence was just as important as the more obvious tweak to the starting lineup.
“I understand the interest in Marcus starting," Stevens told reporters before Tuesday's game. "To me that’s not the story -- and I understand that that’s going to be the story -- but the story is we’re just trying to find our best collective fit in both units."
The Celtics must see if these lineups can maintain that success moving forward, starting with Wednesday's visit from the Denver Nuggets.
A few more thoughts from Tuesday's game:
• Good win, but ... Let's temper the excitement slightly. The Celtics beat a 10-win, basement-dwelling Knicks team that nearly rallied back into the game in the fourth quarter. (To be fair, New York had won five of its previous seven.) Boston shot a staggering 73.1 percent from the mid-range, making 19 of 26 attempts -- most of them by Bradley, who was a perfect 5-for-5 from that distance. The Celtics can't expect to get that sort of shooting every night, but Sullinger's commitment to playing near the hoop certainly helped balance things a bit.
• Starters in focus: Boston's new-look starting lineup was plus-7 over 15 minutes of total floor time. The unit had an offensive rating of 118.9 in that short sample, but that's encouraging considering Boston's inability to generate consistent offense lately. The Celtics opened Tuesday's game by scoring 14 of the game's first 16 points, which certainly helped instill a bit of early confidence.
• Two-way Turner: A quick glance at his stat line might suggest another off night for Evan Turner, who finished with five points on 1-of-5 shooting with five turnovers and four fouls over 32:34. He offset those woes with eight rebounds and five assists and, maybe most importantly, he provided some gritty 1-on-1 defense against Carmelo Anthony (9 of 23, 21 points).
• Only the Young: Rookie James Young got some more first-quarter playing time on Tuesday, logging 17 total minutes, which is his most court time since that 13-point breakout effort against Charlotte on Jan. 5. Young finished 2-of-7 shooting with five points, three rebounds and two assists. He looked more comfortable on the court with extended floor time and simply needs some shots to start falling to build his confidence at the NBA level.