WALTHAM, Mass. -- Boston Celtics coach Brad Stevens admitted Thursday that he's still pondering lineup changes in advance of Friday's Game 3 against the Atlanta Hawks, and given Boston's slow starts and penchant for switching to smaller lineups, some tweaks seem inevitable if the team's health will allow it.
The Celtics have been outscored 54-26 in the opening quarter of the series' first two games -- losses that leave the team staring at a 2-0 hole. The Hawks owned a double-digit lead seven minutes into Game 1 then needed only three minutes to build a similar cushion in Game 2. The Celtics have struggled to score the ball, but they have also struggled to match up with the Hawks early while sticking with traditional two-big lineups.
The obvious move for Boston would be to simply start Turner in a one-big lineup. The trouble there is that, with Avery Bradley sidelined by a hamstring injury, Boston's thin on experienced backcourt depth. The team has already elevated Marcus Smart to Bradley's starting spot, and adding Turner to the first unit means having to lean on rookies Terry Rozier and R.J. Hunter in key minutes when the starters go to the bench. Having either Smart or Turner on the bench gives the team a steady ball-handler to roll in with the second unit.
The Celtics have started Turner to open the second half of each of the first two games and the thin guard depth didn't deter Stevens from that small-ball lineup to open the second half of Game 2. Rozier subbed in with 6:44 to play in the third with Smart and Thomas still on the floor to help with ball-handling chores, and Turner came back four minutes later when Smart subbed out. Things got trickier later in the quarter as Smart had to come back quick to sub for Isaiah Thomas with 1:15 to play in the frame.
Stevens has done his best to manage minutes this season and doesn't like to lean too heavily on his players, believing shorter minutes can help give them needed "juice" in fourth-quarter crunch time. Given the injuries and need to go small, the team has no choice but to lean on Thomas, Smart, Turner, and Jae Crowder.
But there is one other lineup change Stevens could ponder: Start the Swede.
The Celtics have played some of their best basketball this series with Jonas Jerebko on the floor. In his 38 minutes of floor time, the Celtics own a net rating of plus-13.2, far and away the best number on the team (and one of only two players in the positive with Hunter at plus-5.7 in 17 minutes of floor time).
If Stevens wanted to get a bit more athleticism on the floor to better match up with Atlanta's frontcourt of Al Horford and Paul Millsap, he could insert Jerebko for Jared Sullinger. Boston adds more shooting, which might help loosen things up a bit for the likes of Thomas. The Celtics own an offensive rating of 98.6 with Jerebko on the floor, which isn't all that glitzy, but it's the third highest mark on the team at the moment. When Thomas was on the court in the regular season, the Celtics owned an offensive rating of 106.4. That number has plummeted to 76 (and he's a minus-17.1 in net rating) in the playoffs.
Moving Jerebko up to the starting unit might ultimately hinge on the health of Kelly Olynyk, who, after sitting out Game 2 with a shoulder injury, has been deemed "questionable at best" for Game 3. Stevens hinted that the team might need Jerebko's shooting on the second unit if Olynyk can't go on Friday.
For his part, Jerebko said he's ready if he gets the call.
"I’m always ready. I don’t care if that’s starting or coming off the bench first or coming off the eighth man, ninth man -- no matter what it is," said Jerebko. "I’m ready for whatever. We’ve kinda had every lineup so, like I said, we’re going to come out strong in front of our fans and we’re just going to come out strong tomorrow."
Sullinger, who has struggled at both ends of the floor, but particularly defending Horford, seemed resigned to the idea that changes were coming.
"I'm not Brad. I can't speak for Brad. Going into Game 3 where you gotta win, I wouldn't be surprised if he switched stuff up," said Sullinger.
Sullinger, however, noted the team's issues at the start of games might go beyond personnel.
"It just seems like we are a step slow to everything," said Sullinger. "It's like we got to get punched in the mouth for us to start playing the way we need to play. We kept talking about, 'We can't keep doing this.' ... We have to change it around and understand that first-quarter starts are very important to us."
Stevens stressed to his players that a better start won't necessarily ensure a better result.
"We’ve got to be better at the start, but at the same time it’s not going to be just about the first six minutes," said Stevens. "We’ve got to play well throughout the whole 48. [The Hawks are] playing at a really good level that we’re playing against. They’re a really good team. And so we have to play well."
The Celtics are hoping the change in venue will help provide a jolt, too.
"[The fans are] going to be ready," said Thomas. "I can’t wait. Probably going to be loud and energized. We better not start off slow with that crowd."
Echoed Sullinger: "Man, we have the best crowd in the NBA. We know the Boston faithful is always there, cheering us on no matter what type of game it is. I know that [Friday] they are going to be real loud since it's Game 3 and a must-win for us."