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NEW YORK – Brad Stevens shook up his lineup Monday night in Brooklyn. Then his Celtics shook down the Nets during a 103-94 win.
Evan Turner started in place of the injured Avery Bradley, and Stevens also chose to insert Kelly Olynyk in place of Jared Sullinger at the starting center position. Boston’s offense promptly opened up with an electric start, scoring 37 points during the first quarter while setting the tone for the remainder of the game.
“I just thought we had good spacing,” Brad Stevens said of his team’s first-quarter performance. “Kelly didn’t make any shots but they certainly had to honor him in the first quarter, and then he got his rhythm a little bit.
“That opens up things for Amir (Johnson). That opens up things for drivers, and Jae (Crowder) got a few drives to the rim and Evan got a few drives to the rim. I thought we had a really solid first quarter.”
Stevens’ moves resulted in much more than just improved numbers on the scoreboard. They also seemed to breathe new life into the Celtics. From top to bottom, they looked engaged – for the first time in more than a week.
“We were locked in as a unit and it showed in the first five minutes of the game,” said Crowder, who scored a game-high 25 points. “We came out and we got into them and dictated the way the game was going to go.”
Turner and Olynyk played at a high level all night long, combining for 21 points, 15 rebounds, five assists and two blocks. Most notable, however, may have been the fact that Sullinger returned to his old self while coming off the bench.
Sullinger had been in the midst of what may have been the worst shooting slump of his career. Over his previous 14 games, which stretched from the beginning of December through Saturday, he had shot just 36.0 percent from the field and 18.2 percent from long range while scoring 7.8 points a game.
Frustrations reached a head Saturday afternoon against Brooklyn, when the big man scored just seven points in 18 minutes of action. During a timeout, he removed himself from the team and sat on the scorer’s table all by himself.
“It was a lot of things going on, especially with the way the game was going on,” he said before Monday’s game of his decision to leave the huddle. “So I just tried to refrain myself from snapping.”
That wasn’t one of Sullinger’s better moments, and it may have contributed to him coming off the bench Monday night. However, he responded with a fantastic attitude, accompanied by 17-plus minutes of great effort, en route to a double-double that consisted of 12 points and 10 boards.
“I thought Sully brought us great energy right when he got into the game,” Stevens said.
Moments later, Crowder added of Sullinger, “We need him to play like that. We need him to bring it every night and get on the boards and play the way he’s capable of playing and play with a lot of self-confidence.
“He had to get back to that, and he got back to it – smiling and playing hard – and we need it.”
With Sullinger regaining his impactful play and infectious attitude, and with Turner and Olynyk excelling in their first start together this season, the Celtics found their way. They controlled the game from start to finish, leading for the final 43-plus minutes of the night and at one point pulling ahead by as many as 19 points.
Boston controlled the game at both ends. Two days after shooting a woeful 38.6 percent from the field against Brooklyn, it connected on 44.6 percent of its shots while scoring 54 points in the paint. Meanwhile, at the other end, the Celtics limited the Nets to just 37.6 percent shooting in the game.
“I thought we played with a lot of purpose tonight,” said Stevens, later adding that he thought the C’s “played pretty confidently” throughout the game.
That was exactly what Boston needed: a comfortable, confident, team-oriented win that featured strong performances across the board.
One thing is for sure: the shake-up worked.