Celts Tweak Starting Unit for First Time This Season

Marc D'Amico
Team Reporter and Analyst

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CHICAGO – Brad Stevens said before Wednesday’s season opener that every NBA team is “probably going to have a change or two to their starting lineup when all is said and done.”

How ironic.

Just a day later, midway through an underwhelming performance against the Bulls in Chicago, Stevens himself made a change to his starting unit.

Tyler Zeller started the second half in place of Amir Johnson during Boston’s 105-99 loss to the Bulls. He was inserted into the starting group after the Celtics were outscored 57-49 and outrebounded 29-17 during the first half.

“We were getting beat on the glass a little bit, and I thought maybe a little bit more size would help in that regard,” Stevens said of the decision.

The move proved to be genius for a brief period of time, as it yielded immediate dividends.

Zeller, who is in his third season with Boston, tallied six points, three rebounds, one assist and a blocked shot during nine-plus minutes of third-quarter action. He also took a charge in the lane that negated a Chicago basket.

“I knew rebounding, obviously, was a big thing for us. I had to go out and try to get (Robin) Lopez off the boards,” Zeller said of his goals heading into the third quarter. “More than that, just try to get these guys shots. Try to get them open, set good screens, and if [the defenders] happen to help they’ll drop it off. But if not, they’re great shooters and are able to knock down shots. We did a fairly good job of that.”

As a result, Boston whittled away at Chicago’s lead and actually took its first lead of the night, at 64-63. The Celtics outscored the Bulls by five points during Zeller’s third-quarter action.

“I thought Tyler was great,” Al Horford said of his new frontline partner. “He brought a lot of energy. He’s another big body to bang against Lopez. He was very active on the glass.”

Boston’s activity in general was not consistent through the remainder of the night, however. Chicago again built up a double-digit lead during the fourth quarter and hung on for the six-point victory thanks to eight points and a clutch 3-pointer from Dwyane Wade.

Still, the decision by Stevens to alter the starting opened up an interesting discussion. Is this a permanent change, or just a temporary one?

History says the latter. Stevens has never been shy about changing his starting lineup mid-game. In fact, he has done it often throughout his three-plus seasons on the Celtics sideline. However, such moves have typically been made more as mid-game adjustments than as long-term changes.

One would have to assume that such will be the case in this regard as well, especially considering the cohesion that Boston’s starting unit has developed to this point.

For the first time in Stevens’ tenure with Boston, the Celtics operated with the same starting unit from the first day of training camp through the first game of the regular season. And that group, consisting of Isaiah Thomas, Avery Bradley, Jae Crowder, Horford and Johnson, has played outstanding together more often than not.

That unit did start Thursday night’s game against Chicago, but it didn’t start the second half.

That’s just the latest reminder that in the NBA, no starting lineup is set in stone, and Stevens is always ready and willing to make a necessary change.