Marcus Smart and Marcus Morris entered the starting lineup and the Boston Celtics won big. Should Celtics coach Brad Stevens keep them in the starting lineup?
With Jaylen Brown injured, Boston Celtics coach Brad Stevens had a decision to make regarding who would replace him in the starting lineup when the Celtics took on the New Orleans Pelicans Monday night.
Sensing his starters needed a jolt of energy, Stevens inserted Marcus Smart into the lineup, alongside typical reserve Marcus Morris, who started in place of Aron Baynes. Baynes had been moved into the starting lineup the last three games as Gordon Hayward transitioned to a sixth man role.
In the first six minutes of the game, Smart made his presence felt, pushing up on Jrue Holiday defensively, and forcing three Pelicans turnovers as Boston jumped out to an early 20-9 lead. On two plays, Smart provided great ball pressure, forcing the ball-handler to throw an errant pass.
On this play below, Smart sinks into the paint early, providing perfect help defense to prevent Anthony Davis from getting the ball before reading Holiday’s eyes to pick off the pass.
Smart’s presence was felt on both ends, as Boston got off to one of its better starts of the season, while Holiday committed eight turnovers with Smart pestering him all over the floor. The Celtics jumped out to a 10-2 lead and cruised to their most complete win of the season, 124-107, over the Pelicans Monday.
In his first start of the season, Smart dished out 5 assists to just 1 turnover, while also making 2-of-5 three-point attempts in addition to his stellar defense. Smart played so well with the first unit, it begs the question: should Marcus Smart continue to start for the Celtics, even with a full, healthy roster?
With Boston not playing again until Friday when they host the Cleveland Cavaliers, Brown could be good to go after resting with a tailbone injury suffered at the end of the loss to Dallas. For his part, Stevens told WEEI that he is leaning towards keeping Smart in the starting lineup–for now.
Of course, Stevens also said the starting lineup will not be set ‘until forever‘, showing his preference to tinker with the starting lineup based on matchups, who is playing well, and who may need a night off.
While Smart proved worthy of a starting role, in the long term, he belongs on the Boston bench to begin the game for the Celtics to reach their full potential. With Smart starting, Baynes moved back to the bench partially because of matchups, but also because its hard to be successful offensively with the pair sharing the court.
Neither Baynes nor Smart are treated as shooting threats by the defense, so their men sag off and provide help on driving lanes. It’s hard for any of the Celtics stars to score in the paint when the weakside defense is there waiting for them if they get by the primary defender; when Baynes and Smart share the court, Boston ranks dead last in percentage of shots attempted at the rim (24.3%), according to Cleaning the Glass.
This season, Boston averages 105.4 points per 100 possessions when the duo plays together; last season, it was 105.2 per 100, per Cleaning The Glass. The defense, of course, is fantastic, but the Celtics struggle to score when Baynes and Smart play together.
On Monday, Stevens started Morris, a lethal three-point shooter this season, instead of Baynes to better space the floor with Smart out there. Morris did exactly that, nailing three three-pointers and 8-of-14 field goals to register a double double with 19 points and 11 rebounds.
Against New Orleans, who starts Davis at center and soft sharpshooter Nikola Mirotic at the four, it made sense to start Marcus Morris. Horford showed he can handle Davis defensively, and though Mirotic cooked (25 points), Morris can better be expected to track him on the perimeter than Horford or Baynes.
Against other teams, starting Baynes makes more sense because the Baynes-Hayward frontcourt helps solidify one of this team’s biggest weaknesses thus far: pick-and-roll defense. At center, Horford has shown that he can’t always keep up with the lob-catching, rim-running centers like Rudy Gobert, Jusuk Nurkic, without better help from the weakside defense.
What is Horford supposed to do here?
When Baynes and Horford play together, the Celtics don’t have wing players like Gordon Hayward and Jaylen Brown protecting the paint on the weakside against pick-and-rolls. Instead, either Baynes or Horford is rotating over to help on the roller and they are both high-level paint protectors.
Horford is averaging 1.7 blocks per game, ranking him tied for 11th in the NBA. Baynes, meanwhile, is arguably the best interior defender in the NBA. He doesn’t wow with blocks and athleticism like Joel Embiid or Anthony Davis, but he’s even more effective by beating guys to the spot and walling off the paint with his enormous size, strength, and disciplined verticality.
Though Boston needs to get better at playing their pick-and-roll defense, having Horford and Baynes both start is still the smart call against a handful of really strong, or athletic centers, like Embiid, Gobert, etc.
In that case, Smart will probably return to the bench and either Brown or Hayward will start to provide the necessary shooting and spacing around the big guys. So, as good as Smart looked in the starting lineup, it will probably only be a short-term, or situational, solution.
That’s before we even talk about Gordon Hayward, who is playing as the Celtics sixth man right now, but will almost certainly be back in the starting as soon as he fully breaks out of whatever post-injury funk he’s in.
With the Celtics starting the season so poorly, it’s easy to point to a lineup change and hope its going to be some immediate salvation, but the bottom line is Boston needs everybody to play better and then the player combinations will naturally sort themselves out.
Until then, Stevens will keep tinkering.
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