It’s been something coach Brad Stevens has been pondering for a few weeks, ever since his starters got into the habit of quickly falling behind in games, forcing the Celtics to furiously rally on a nightly basis.
It got exhausting, to the point where Stevens was looking for answers — but he didn’t want to bruise egos. He ultimately made the decision to bring Gordon Hayward off the bench because he blended in better with the second unit.
He inserted Marcus Morris into the starting lineup because of his scoring punch and defense. And finally, when Jaylen Brown suffered a back bruise, Stevens used the opportunity to place Marcus Smart in the starting lineup.
And that move may be the one that most sparks a turnaround, which needs to happen soon for the Celtics.
Smart played 39 minutes, 40 seconds in Monday’s win at New Orleans, the most of any player on the team, and finished with a plus-12 as Celtics starters dominated their counterparts in the 124-107 win.
Smart had been complaining for the past few games about a lack of defensive intensity and said the team needed to impose themselves more, become more intimidating and menacing to set a tone.
The Pelicans could barely get the ball up the court for most of the first half, and Smart’s pressure — he forced five first-half turnovers by Jrue Holiday — was most responsible for that.
Keeping Smart in the starting lineup, at least for now, should be Stevens’s easiest move. His impact on the game and his influence on his teammates is evident.
“I think the unit we had out there [Monday] really was, we really had that mind-set going that we wanted to start the game and have a defensive presence,” guard Kyrie Irving said.
“Marcus on the ball took some of that pressure off of me . . . offensively and defensively. When my time was on Jrue Holiday, I was able to direct and do the right things, and Marcus was really taking that responsibility.
“And that’s a role he particularly plays for our team and we do really well. And also on the offensive end, it takes the pressure off me to play off the ball sometimes. My energy can get depleted coming up and down and directing the ball every single time. Marcus in there gave me that outlet to get off the ball. We did pretty well with that unit.”
OK, so the starting point guard basically endorsed Smart to be his backcourt mate, at least more often. Would Stevens be daring enough to bring Brown and Hayward off the bench? What those guys have to realize is that any remedy to their early-season issues is welcome, and that egos will have to be left at the locker room door.
In the past few weeks, Smart has been defending guards that are already hot — such as J.J. Barea, Trey Burke, or Kemba Walker — and isn’t as effective because those players have already hit shots. Their confidence is brimming. The Celtics did not allow Holiday, the Pelicans’ second-leading scorer at 19.7 points per game, to get into a rhythm, and he struggled all night, committing a season-high eight turnovers. Without a viable second scoring option behind Anthony Davis, the Pelicans’ offense struggles.
When asked of Smart’s importance to the team, Irving said: “There’s a reason why we signed him back. There’s a reason why he’s very instrumental for our team being successful because he’s a veteran now. We expect him to be in the right spots and doing the right things, and when he’s playing with me, we play pretty well together, the 1 and 2 spots. Defensively and offensively, I feel like he brings our numbers up, and I’m appreciative.”
It’s not that Stevens doesn’t want to use the Irving, Brown, Hayward, Jayson Tatum, Al Horford starting lineup, but it’s not working right now. Irving needs help defending dynamic point guards, and he freely acknowledged that Smart’s presence is a relief.
The Celtics also need a defensive-minded starter. Brown has the potential to turn into that swingman who can enhance the defense as well as score when needed. But he’s had trouble transitioning to the new defensive rules and has picked up fouls.
It was going to be a more difficult endeavor than expected for Stevens to deploy his talent in the proper places and make all of his players happy. That may be an impossible feat. But he has to do what’s required to win.
“Marcus and [Aron] Baynes bring just a level of grit,” Stevens said. “I wanted to see what that would look like with Marcus in the starting lineup. We won’t be settled on a starting lineup, until forever.”
So for now, it should be Smart. The Celtics need victories. They need cohesion, and they need to figure out what makes them successful. They played one of their better games of the season Monday, won in a place they hadn’t for three years, and came away with positivity.
So don’t mess with the recipe. Smart’s presence was effective, and the Celtics should ride this for as long as they are better at the beginning of games and more efficient closing out at the end.