New Starting Lineup is Hungry for Growth and Success

BOSTON – The Celtics used 23 starting lineups during the regular season. They’re hoping that the latest version to take the court is the one that will lead them to the Promised Land.

That’s the version that consists of Kyrie Irving, Jaylen Brown, Jayson Tatum, Al Horford and Aron Baynes. That’s the one that took the court Sunday afternoon, when Boston built a 1-0 series lead against the Indiana Pacers.

It’s also the one that, including Game 1, has started only four games together all season.

Boston’s most popular starting lineup this season consisted of Irving, Marcus Smart, Tatum, Marcus Morris and Horford, a crew that started 33 games together and led the team’s five-man lineups in minutes played. Brad Stevens recently flipped to a new opening group, however, both out of necessity and by choice.

Smart was forced to the sideline with a torn left oblique during Boston’s 81st game of the regular season, forcing Stevens to plug a new player into his starting lineup. He called upon Brown, who started 15 of his 18 games last postseason while averaging 18.0 points per game, to fill the role during Game 1.

More than three weeks earlier, on March 26, Stevens also made the decision to insert Baynes into the starting lineup alongside Horford. That decision was made for a very different reason: to shore up Boston’s defense.

“For us, it wasn’t as much about starting big … as it was really re-establishing a defensive identity with our team with Baynes in the game,” Stevens explained after Tuesday’s practice session.

The Celtics stamped their Game 1 victory with that defensive identity by holding the Pacers to a paltry 74 points Sunday afternoon.

During that win, Boston’s starting lineup was good, but not great. It played 11-plus minutes together and outscored the Pacers by four points during that time. It failed to connect on a 3-pointer, however, and committed seven turnovers.

Such inconsistencies are to be expected from a group that played a total of only 25 minutes together during the regular season. Irving is confident, though, the unit’s wrinkles to be ironed out sooner rather than later.

“We just (need to) get used to just the spacing out there, understanding where we get the most efficiency on the court from each other, the plays, defensively being in the right spots and trusting one another,” he said Tuesday. “The starting lineup is a change, but we can adapt. We’re good enough to do that.”

There’s no denying that fact. This starting group isn’t just talented; it’s supremely talented. Like, NBA champion-level talented.

Irving and Horford have been All-Stars for years.

Brown and Tatum very well could become All-Stars for years to come.

And lurking in the back of them all is a 6-foot-10 Viking of a screen-setter who ranked second in the league among centers in defensive rating this season.

This crew is certainly different from the one that was Boston’s most popular by choice this season. Without Smart, the defense takes a hit and Irving is forced to initiate the offense far more often. Without Morris, there is less playmaking and defensive versatility.

But with Brown, there is more size and shooting. And with Baynes, there is a defensive anchor inside the paint.

With them all, there is momentum.

Six months after Boston’s first starting lineup took the court on Opening Night, the most recent of its 23 starting lineups is now looking to spur a 2-0 series lead. This group may be fresh, but it’s also hungry for a trophy’s worth of victories.

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