Blame a breezy preseason or maybe all those lofty win projections, but the Boston Celtics had been cruising along so smoothly since the start of the 2015-16 campaign that Friday's loss to the Toronto Raptors seemed particularly jarring.
Make no mistake, the game was an eyesore, especially for the Celtics. But a glance at our inbox this morning suggested that some Celtics fans were already in panic mode. An example: a reader wondered if Boston should consider starting rookie second-round pick Jordan Mickey over Tyler Zeller. That would be the same Mickey who was inactive and watched most of Friday's game from behind the Celtics bench because there weren't enough chairs for all the team's players and coaches.
There is understandable consternation in CelticsLand because Boston's starting 5 has struggled at times through two games. Celtics coach Brad Stevens is still trying to figure out the best pairings for his team and that's led to him utilizing 37 five-man combinations through 48 minutes (only the starting unit has played more than seven minutes together).
After pledging to both stick with a 10-man rotation and utilize only four bigs on most nights, Stevens attempted to roll 11 deep during Friday's loss and trotted out all five of his bigs. On this night, it didn't help his team's cause. But what it hammered home is that Boston's depth can be both a curse and a blessing and it's going to take time to figure out how to best utilize it.
Boston's starting 5 -- Marcus Smart, Avery Bradley, Jae Crowder, David Lee, and Zeller -- have been outscored by 11 points in 16 minutes of floor time. Even Stevens noted that, while each player has had his moments individually, the unit as a whole has struggled. That's underlined by the fact that the starters are averaging just 79.4 points per 100 possessions but allowing 107.9 (a minus-28.5 net rating).
A unit that was surprisingly crisp on the offensive end during preseason play has struggled to generate points together, putting Boston in a very similar spot to last season when it needed its second unit to rescue it a bit after slow starts to halves.
There will be a temptation to make changes, but the larger preseason sample suggests it's more prudent for Boston to stay the course. That won't be easy, especially if the Celtics struggle when the San Antonio Spurs visit on Sunday.
"We’ll continue to tinker and look at it and everything else and it’s a balancing act of making sure that we’re defending the way that we can and scoring the ball," said Stevens. "But clearly the bench is scoring; there’s no science to that, they are scoring the ball."
Boston's best offensive groups -- at least the ones that have played more than three minutes -- have been early reserve pairings like a combination of Isaiah Thomas, Smart, Evan Turner, Amir Johnson, and Jared Sullinger (sprinkle Jonas Jerebko in one of those big man spots for smaller lineups and that unit has likewise thrived). There seems little reason to tinker with the bench if Boston believes it can get its starters on track.
"We’re continuing to get better," Bradley said of the starting group. "We just need to use every off day to try to improve. If it’s practicing or watching film, whatever it is so we can become a better team and improve in the first unit, because we can’t have second halves like [Friday]."
Finding the minutes sweet spot
Stevens has pledged to utilize the team's depth as a weapon but also noted how players who were OK with thinner minutes in the preseason might grumble a bit more once the season started. Any of Boston's five bigs -- Johnson (18:58), Lee (17:02), Kelly Olynyk (16:36), Zeller (16:29) and Sullinger (8:04) -- could make a case for more playing time on Friday (though Sullinger was hindered by foul trouble).
Another problem with evenness and available depth is that Stevens might have to eventually resist the temptation to go deeper into the bench in search of a spark when things are sputtering. The Raptors were starting to pull away a bit on Friday night when Stevens deployed hustle-maven Jerebko as the 11th body of the night midway through the third quarter. For whatever reason, the Celtics only got sloppier and, two minutes later, the Raptors were up 14 and Stevens needed a timeout to settle his team.
The rotation will figure itself out over time and, even before the start of the season, Stevens pledged to be open-minded.
"Just as we are asking the team to be flexible and malleable, I have to be," he said. "I don’t think I can take the easy way out and say I’d like to have a set rotation every night. I need to be thinking outside the box and I need to make sure we utilize that depth. Obviously, [players] have to continue to play well to stay in the mix of guys that are playing, but I need to be able to adjust on the fly, too. That’s as much on me as anybody else."