Celtics coach Brad Stevens faced a bit of a conundrum at the start of this season. It was obvious who his best five players were, but they hardly fit the mold of a group that generally takes the court together.
In Kemba Walker, Jayson Tatum, Jaylen Brown, Marcus Smart, and Gordon Hayward, the Celtics essentially have five 3-point-shooting, layup-hunting, defensively versatile players. But there is no center among them, or even a traditional power forward, for that matter.
But it is not 1985 anymore. And teams like the Rockets have shown that unusual groupings can thrive, regardless of whether they are peering up at their opponent or not. So Stevens spoke excitedly about deploying his “best five” lineup and seeing where things went.
“The idea,” Stevens said, “was that we have to get those guys on the court as much as possible.”
During the regular season, though, the best five became little more than an afterthought. It was mostly because Boston rarely had all five healthy and ready at once. But even in their small slices on the court together, the results were underwhelming. In 20 total minutes, that unit was outscored by an average of 21.5 points per 100 possessions. It was not much of a sample size, but it also wasn’t encouraging.
During the playoffs, though, the playing time of top players is usually increased and rotations are shortened. So there should have been a chance for the best five to get another look. Then Hayward sprained his ankle in Game 1 of the opening-round series against the 76ers, and the Celtics would have to wait.
Hayward returned for Game 3 of the conference finals against the Heat Saturday night. The Celtics faced a 2-0 series deficit, and there was urgency. And with 2:39 left in the second quarter, the best five were back.
“We’ve got a lot of firepower in that group,” Smart said. “We’ve got a lot of versatility. We got a lot of length between me, Gordon, Jayson, and Jaylen where we can switch any ball screen with us, and even sometimes with Kemba.
"And not only on the defensive end, but on the offensive end, our firepower is remarkable. And the fact that if you key in on one or two guys, you still got those other guys that can hurt you.”
In this stint, the group was dominant. The Celtics led, 51-48, when that unit took the court, and it closed the half with a sudden and thorough 12-2 run.
The Heat start the 6-foot-9-inch Bam Adebayo at center, so the size difference is not nearly as glaring as it would be against a frontcourt like Philadelphia’s, with Joel Embiid and Al Horford.
Brown drew the Adebayo assignment, and in the first-half stint Saturday, he helped force a pair of turnovers involving the Heat big man that led to fast-break baskets. The Celtics did not surrender an offensive rebound in this stretch.
“It seems like a group that we might see a little bit more often, especially at the end of games,” Brown said. “We’ve just got to be great. That’s what it comes down to. We’ve got to be aggressive. We’ve got to rebound with that group and make the right play.
"There’s a lot of good players on the floor all at the same time, but I believe in that group.”
This five-man unit also took the floor together for a second-half stretch, and the results were similarly encouraging. In seven total minutes, it boasted a 162.5 offensive rating and a 76.5 defensive rating. Neither of those numbers are remotely sustainable, but they do make it clear that the best five will be back in this series, probably frequently.
“It was great to have Gordon back out there and play with that lineup,” Tatum said. “It’s been a while. Obviously we haven’t gotten the opportunity to play with those five guys that much throughout the season, so just to have him back, just his presence on the court, was extremely helpful.”
In all, the group made 8 of 11 shots, 8 of 8 free throws, and dished out 5 assists when on the court together in Game 3, and it held the Heat to 4-for-14 shooting and forced a pair of turnovers.
“We have to get more crisp with that group,” Stevens said. “But certainly, in the playoffs, the more you can play your best players, the better, and those are our five best.”