MILAN — Time and again, Celtics coach Brad Stevens cautioned that the lineups and rotations he used in Tuesday’s preseason opener against Olimpia Milano would not offer a blueprint for the season.
Instead, Stevens said, it would simply be the start of a brief period of experimentation, as he attempts to figure out how to mold a deep team into one that is also efficient and effective.
The players understood that approach. They were also eager to find out who would be on the floor at the start, who would play together, who would mesh.
“But [Stevens] never gave it to us all weekend,” forward Jae Crowder said with a smile. “We just worked with him and tried to be patient. We just wanted to know the rotations, and what it’s gonna be like.”
The first hint, Crowder said, came at the team’s shootaround about eight hours before it faced Olimpia Milano. Even then, though, much remained unclear.
“We were literally walking out onto the court in the hallways before the game,” Crowder said, “and the assistant coaches were walking up to us like, ‘You’re starting. You’re starting. You’re starting.’ ”
Ultimately, Crowder was joined by David Lee, Tyler Zeller, Marcus Smart, and Avery Bradley, and that group ignited a comfortable 124-91 win before a sellout crowd at the Mediolanum Forum.
Of course, the result probably would have been similar with numerous other combinations, partly because the talent gap on this team is not wide, and partly because playing time was spread quite evenly, anyway. Twelve Celtics played 14 minutes or more, and none played more than 25.
Subtle yet predictable patterns were revealed. As Stevens has hinted, Isaiah Thomas was often grouped with capable shooters. Bradley, who has vowed to eschew long 2-point jumpers in favor of the more efficient 3-pointer, shot from long range on four of his six attempts. And Lee showed that he certainly will be capable of starting a fast break as a kind of point forward.
“We’re going to try to play through him quite a bit, especially when he’s not on the floor with Isaiah,” Stevens said. “I just [like] his ability to handle, to pass. He makes plays for others, and he thinks the game well.”
The Celtics used several smaller lineups, but that was partially because they were facing numerous smaller lineups on this night. For the most part, particularly considering this was the first game of the season, the offense ran smoothly and cobwebs were brushed away quickly.
“We looked very crisp on offense at the start of the game,” Crowder said. “We got exactly what we wanted, make or miss. And we got to our spots.”
Thomas led the Celtics with 18 points. Lee added 13 points, 7 rebounds, and 3 assists. Bradley and Jared Sullinger added 14 points apiece. The Celtics shot 56.1 percent from the field and 38.1 percent from the 3-point line. They had assists on 31 of their 46 made shots.
“When we play unselfish like that, it’s easy basketball,” Lee said. “I think that’s gonna be a staple for us, kind of a benchmark, all year long. If we can play unselfishly and get each other involved, the game could be easy for everybody, and we did that tonight.”
If this evening revealed anything, it is that Stevens’s challenge of distributing playing time will not be easy. And in this game Boston did not even have swingman Evan Turner, who sat out with a mild knee strain.
The Celtics will now depart for Spain to conclude this six-day NBA Global Games trip with Thursday’s exhibition against Real Madrid.
“That’ll be really tough,” Stevens said, “and so our goal is just to get better and improve. We’ll be able to look at the film and figure out where we were able to do that.”
Adam Himmelsbach can be reached at email@example.com. Follow him on Twitter at Adam Himmelsbach