They’ve cooled down a bit lately, but the 2017-18 Boston Celtics have so far exceeded all reasonable expectations. After drafting Jayson Tatum, signing Gordon Hayward, and trading for Kyrie Irving, Las Vegas experts pegged the Celtics as a team that would finish in the mid-50s in wins. (Their preseason over/under was 54.5.) But even after losing Hayward to a fractured ankle just five minutes into the season, the Celtics have played at a 60-win pace.
They’ve been powered to their 28-10 record by basketball’s second-best defense, one which is itself powered by the roster’s enviable flexibility. And they use that flexibility to their advantage whenever possible. The Celtics, unlike most great teams, tend to shapeshift themselves to match their opponent on any given night.
Not including Hayward, Brad Stevens has used eight different players in his starting lineup this season. He’s rolled out those eight players in nine different five-man combinations across 37 games, with none of the configurations starting more than four consecutive games at any point. (For what it’s worth: eight of the nine lineups have .500 records or better, and seven are at .667 or better. The two highest-usage groups are 14-5 and 6-1, respectively.)
Some of the incessant maneuvering has been necessitated by injury. Stevens acknowledged that the team would have for the most part played small had Hayward stayed healthy; and that Marcus Morris’ various maladies which have limited him to only 17 games so far this season have thus prevented him from making regular appearances with the starting group. But even with those caveats, Stevens appears to like adjusting his lineup to match the opponent, rather than forcing the opponent to adjust to match the Celtics. If you have the personnel to play the opponent’s game — and if that personnel has the talent play the opponent’s style better than the opponent can — why not try?
“If Gordon was still available, we probably would be small almost all the time, if not all the time,” Stevens says. “But as a result, we think, obviously — when you’re playing against a team like the Knicks, for example, [Enes] Kanter is a guy that’s absolutely given us fits forever. [Andre] Drummond gave us fits with Detroit. The more we can have size on those guys, the better.”