With a win over the Golden State Warriors on Thursday night, the Boston Celtics have overcome what appeared to be a major mental hurdle. After falling to the Warriors in last year’s NBA Finals and then getting dented in the first showdown of the season on Dec. 10, they’re finally getting their strikes back.
But the game meant more than just a win for the Warriors. It was the first time Boston fielded the respected starting lineup that dominated the NBA last year of Marcus Smart, Jaylen Brown, Jason Tatum, Al Horford and Robert Williams.
Of all the five-man units that logged at least 200 minutes together last season, those starting units ranked first in net rating (24.6) and defensive rating (94.2). And while reassembling this lineup may improve the Boston roof, it also raises a whole new set of questions.
The biggest of these questions is how Joe Mazzola will distribute minutes during the Celtics’ guard rotation. Smart is the obvious starter, but beyond that both Derrick White and Malcolm Brogdon will need plenty of chances too. Up to this point in the season, the three had managed to see a lot of playing time, with White being part of the starting line-up. But now, things must change.
In their first game as bench captains, Brogdon got the call. He played 35:46 to White’s 17:28—marking his third-lowest minute of the season and his lowest excluding outbursts. However, both sides treated the match as a play-off, so the minutes totals were a bit inflated all around.
Tatum played a career-high 48:07, the Browns beat the 40-minute barrier, and Smart and Horford both played over 37 minutes as well. Mazzola kept his rotation to just nine players (including only 7:30 of court time for Luke Cornette), and Steve Kerr shortened his rotation to just eight players.
However, at the same time, this game can be used as a prime example of when to use each guard. In this situation, both Brown and Tatum struggled to find their footing. That left Boston scrambling for answers on the offensive end, and Brogdon answered the call as he has many times this year. He didn’t shoot well, but his three three-pointers and superior shot creation provided a needed boost.
On the other hand, White failed to score a single field goal. He ended the night with a unique point, shooting 0-of-6 from the ground and 0-of-3 from long range. The lack of shooting has kept him off the field moving forward, and that will likely continue.
Having both White and Brogdon on the bench is an issue most teams in the league would love to have. Both are capable of being the starting point guards in the NBA, but the Celtics are hiring them both away from the pines. Because of that, it can be deployed in different scenarios when the time is right.
Against the warriors, the situation called for an offensive. Tatum and Brown’s combined shooting of 15-for-45 meant that Brogdon was required. His offensive spark was much more than a luxury – it was a necessity. Over his last 10 games, Brogdon has averaged 16.6 points on 48.3% shooting from the field and 49.0% shooting from depth. He has proven that he can be an offensive outlet when Boston needs him.
Meanwhile, White’s strength lies on the defensive end. He can hit threes and drive to the well, but when the Celtics need to shut down the perimeter, White’s number will be called. White is tied for 29th in the NBA in blocks (41), ranks fifth in combined plus/minus (+264), and the Celtics allow 5.8 fewer points per 100 possessions when on the court, per glass cleaning. If the Boston Stars are locked out and need to focus on getting shortstops, White is the guard for the job.
Sometimes, it will be more complicated than that. If White is having a hot shooting night, there’s no reason to take him out of the game. The same can be said for Brogdon, especially if his backcourt counterpart is struggling. And to take it a step further, if Smart is up for a tough game, both are perfectly capable of playing in tandem.
The rotation decisions that Mazzola makes will not be easy. Sam Houser completely fell off the map against Golden State, and Grant Williams played at only 12:49. These are other issues in and of themselves. But for a guard position, it can be as simple as offense vs. defense.