C's Starters Show Up Just in the Knick of Time

BOSTON – Sometimes it’s not only a matter of if you show up, but more importantly, when you show up.

After a lackluster first three quarters of play Friday night, Boston’s starters came through in the clutch as the Celtics downed the Knicks 90-86 at TD Garden. Four of the team’s starters combined to score 13 of Boston’s final 15 points, including a 9-2 spurt to seal the game.

An elite fourth-quarter performance wasn’t exactly a shoe-in for Boston's top players. Jared Sullinger was the only player in the starting five who played well over the first three frames, as he racked up 19 points and six boards during that time frame. The remaining four starters combined for 20 points on 8-of-26 shooting.

Jeff Green jumper against NY

Jeff Green's final basket of the night sealed Boston's second consecutive win over New York.
Nathaniel S. Butler/NBAE/Getty Images

Those numbers included an anemic performance from Jeff Green, the team’s leading scorer. He scored just four points over the initial 36 minutes while shooting 1-of-3 from the field.

As Green phrased it, “Offensively, I played like poop.” So did the rest of Boston's starters, with the exception of Sullinger, which prompted Brad Stevens to pull all of them except the second-year big man in favor of reserves.

“It’s an interesting dynamic for me, because… you wanted those guys to know that you believe in them to turn it around,” Stevens said. “But you don’t want to let it get out of hand. So it’s an interesting dynamic that you’re kind of toeing your way through.”

Stevens toed in the direction of his bench and that decision paid off in a big way. The combination of Sullinger, Courtney Lee, Gerald Wallace, Kelly Olynyk and Phil Pressey helped the Celtics build a 17-point lead less than four minutes into the second quarter.

“It made it look like, in the first half, they were going to give us a nice cushion (for the remainder of the game),” said Stevens. “They were really good.”

Good enough to the point where the coach didn’t want to take them off the floor. Problem is, he had to.

No group of NBA players can play an entire game, let alone 20-30 consecutive minutes. At one point or another, Stevens needed to go back to his starters.

He flipped that switch with 5:16 remaining in the first half by sending Bradley, Crawford and Sullinger (who came off the floor for a one-minute stint) in for Lee, Olynyk and Pressey.

Boston led by 16 points after Wallace hit his free throws at that dead ball. Over the final 5:16 of the half, that lead was shaved all the way down to six.

At that point, the Celtics were in for a dog fight. New York’s confidence swelled at halftime and the Knicks wound up outscoring the C’s by 11 points in the third quarter. The visitors took a five-point advantage into the final frame.

Naturally, Stevens decided to go back to his electric first-half group to start the final period. However, their fourth-quarter play did not emulate what they had showcased in the opening half.

The second unit allowed the Celtics to fall behind by 11 points when Beno Udrih hit a jumper with 10:32 remaining on the clock, which put the pressure on Stevens yet again.

Should he ride it out with the second group that had played the best basketball to that point? Or should he abandon his reserves and revert to his starters?

Stevens pushed button No. 2, and here’s why.

“I put [the starters] back in because then the second unit started struggling,” Stevens explained. “I think you go with the guys that have been there in some cases and you ride the hot hand in others, and sometimes it’s a mix of it. Jeff’s made a lot of huge plays for us. Obviously Jordan and Avery have made huge plays for us.”

And they did so again on Friday.

Bradley canned a momentum-swinging 3-pointer from the right corner to put the Celtics on top 86-84 with 2:38 remaining in the game. After an impressive catch and finish by Vitor Faverani, who served as the group’s center in place of Sullinger, Jeff Green put home the biggest basket of the game. He drove right through J.R. Smith and dropped in a driving layup with 9.5 seconds left to put Boston on top by four. Crawford, meanwhile, assisted on 10 of Boston’s final 18 points of the game.

They may not have played well over the first three quarters, but Boston’s starters didn’t care. They wanted to deliver the goods in crunch time. They came through in the biggest moments, highlighted by a basket from their go-to clutch player.

“I want the ball at the end of the game, no matter the situation," that player, Green, said after the game. "I feel like I can make a play for myself and my team, so when it comes down to it, I want the ball.”

The Celtics want him to have the ball in crunch time, too, as he’s surrounded by his fellow starters. Those are the team’s best players, and those are the guys who deliver the big-time plays.

It may have taken a while for those players to show up Friday night, but they showed up just in the Knick of time to down New York.