The Celtics had plenty of good excuses to blow a chance at a 10-game winning streak against a frisky Lakers team on Wednesday night. Not only were they missing their best all-around player since the start of the season in Al Horford, they lost a key secondary offensive weapon in Jayson Tatum (sore ankle) midway through the second quarter. That Gordon Hayward guy was out too.
A 21-point Boston lead slowly dissipated in the middle two frames as the Lakers trimmed the deficit to just two points midway through the third quarter, just as a depleted Celtics bench was set to check into the game. With Marcus Smart already inserted into the starting five in place of Tatum, Brad Stevens would have to rely on the likes of Terry Rozier, Semi Ojeleye and Daniel Theis to help hold off a energized Lakers squad. It wasn’t pretty, but "holding off" was the perfect way to describe what happened in the following 18 minutes.
The Celtics had their worst shooting night of the season as a team (38 percent), but Boston’s role players found creative ways to score with the team’s starting backcourt having off nights (Jaylen Brown and Kyrie Irving were a combined 0-of-10 from 3-point range). Whether it was Rozier’s nose for the ball and basket (14 points, 8 rebounds), Theis’ defense (two steals, three blocks, strong D against Julius Randle) or Aron Baynes wreaking havoc on the offensive glass (career-high 21 points with five offensive rebounds), the Celtics had enough depth step up in each section of the roster to get the job done in the 107-96 win over the Lakers.
“I thought that we made timely plays,” Stevens said after the game. “I didn’t think we necessarily played good basketball the whole last thirty minutes or so, but we got – we got a little caught up in the flair of the game, probably, in the second quarter. And I thought the end of the second quarter was bad. But after that, for the next two quarters, we made timely plays. ... We had a bunch of guys step up and do different things. We were timely. We weren’t good enough to say we played well; we can play better than that.”
The 10th-straight win for Boston was another feather in the cap of Stevens and the Celtics’ front office for putting together a roster that has enough reliable options within its top 11 players to withstand missing some key pieces. It took Stevens a couple games at the start of the season to figure out who he could count in certain spots, but he’s managed the group to perfection once determining which parts fit properly together.
Incredibly, Stevens has also needed every last one of his pieces to make this 10-game winning streak a reality. Take a look at the missing manpower the C’s have had over this impressive run:
Gordon Hayward: 10 games
Marcus Morris: 7 games
Marcus Smart: 2 games
Al Horford: 1 game
Jayson Tatum: One half
“Until we have only four left, we’re just gonna keep playing,” Stevens said after the win of the mounting injuries. “Then I don’t know what you do at four, but we’ll keep playing.”
A closer look shows every rotation player on this team has come up in a big way at various points during the streak (all 10 regular rotation players have played 20-plus minutes in at least one game). Whether it was big defensive minutes from Ojeleye or Theis in spurts, an offensive burst from Rozier or a clutch defensive stop from Smart, everyone has had their moment in some form.
On Wednesday night, it was Baynes’ turn to step up. He was gobbling up misses from the opening tip to help Boston put up 25 second-chance points with most of the team misfiring from the outside (7-of-29 from downtown). Marcus Morris (18 points, 3-of-6 3pt) had his moments as well, despite playing with a minutes restriction, serving as a reliable scoring option when no one else could be counted on. Both veterans praised their head coach for making the situation possible in the face of the injury adversity.
“Brad, he’s a mastermind when it comes to coaching,” Morris said. “He puts guys in the right spots and strong areas to where they can succeed well at. He knows matchups and plugs guys in, he knows what they do best offensively and defensively.”
“That’s the best thing about having a good system and a good coach,” Baynes added. “When we don’t go out there and try and take it upon ourselves, that’s not how we look good. When we got back to moving it that’s when good things happened and that’s when we started to have fun. I keep saying and I keep preaching, but the more you live within the system the better we all look and the more fun we all have as well. That’s a credit to Brad.”
Morris and Baynes have only been in Boston for 12 games, but the buy-in is evident with them and up-and-down the inexperienced roster. The road only gets tougher now for Boston, with Horford and Tatum likely sidelined for Friday’s tilt against the Hornets and beyond. Horford could be out for weeks with concussion symptoms, while Tatum’s status will become more clear after some testing on his sore ankle on Thursday.
Without them, the Celtics will keep trying to find a way to scrap together wins and build on an improbable start to their season.
“That’s what the league’s about,” Morris said. “It’s always got to be next man up. Everybody in this locker room is pros. So when you’re number gets called, you have to be ready. I think Brad does a great job. They’ve played in games before, so it’s not the first time they got in the action. They did a great job staying ready...Sky’s the limit – we keep working hard. It’s early in the season, a long, long, long year. Hopefully, we can withstand and keep on winning. Things happen in the league, and we can’t take this as the worst thing.”