The Celtics were in the midst of an impressive comeback on Saturday night in Atlanta, erasing an early 16-point deficit in the third quarter on the backs off incredible play by Jaylen Brown, Kyrie Irving and Jayson Tatum. The visitors entered the fourth quarter leading the Hawks by just three points as were going for their 15th straight win, yet all three of Boston’s young stars found themselves sitting on the bench.
Some coaches would get caught up in the moment and the hot streaks by their starting five and attempt to ride them to the win. Brad Stevens is not that guy. He sent out an all-bench lineup of Shane Larkin, Marcus Smart, Terry Rozier, Semi Ojeleye and Aron Baynes for the first few minutes of the frame. Stevens had a plan and it involved the starters getting ample rest during this game, just like they had during every one of Boston’s wins during the 15-game streak. Boston’s bench unit lost the lead (the Celtics trailed by one when most of the starters returned with 7:23 remaining) but fresh legs on those guys helped the visitors pull away late with a 110-99 win.
The minutes' management seen on Saturday night is reflective of the wizardry we’ve seen from Stevens all season long. The fact that the Celtics have won 15-straight games is impressive enough in itself, but this group has managed to do it without an overly taxing workload on their bodies. No player on the Celtics is averaging over 33 minutes per game over the first 17 games of the regular season, a nod to the contributions the team has gotten up-and-down the roster, but also to the priority Stevens places on resting his players.
Incredibly, when you look at the minutes leaders across the NBA, no one player on the league’s best team is in the top-40 of minutes per game. Here’s a look at the breakdown:
Minutes Per Game
1. LeBron James 38.6
43. Kyrie Irving 33.0 (adjusted to take out the two minutes he played in game vs. Hornets before suffering facial fracture since it skewed his average downwards)
53. Jaylen Brown 32.3
54. Al Horford 32.2
79. Marcus Smart 30.3
88. Jayson Tatum 29.8
On the whole, the Celtics have 11 players on their roster averaging over 10 minutes per game. Stevens does not go 11 deep every game, but he’s not afraid to look down his bench to find the right situationally player (Ojeleye, Larkin, Theis) for a stint with the second unit, rather than turning back to one of his starters before their scheduled rest is done
This hasn’t been the case for the entire season. When Gordon Hayward went down in the opener with Marcus Morris already sidelined, Stevens didn’t have rotations in place yet that he could trust. The starters played their biggest minutes of the season in the first two games of the year, but Stevens managed to find the groupings he could trust, starting in the second half of the C’s first win of the year in Philadelphia. Stevens gained trust in the bench during that performance and he hasn’t been afraid to ride with them since then, to help ensure the starters get the rest they need.
Stevens has stayed consistent with this philosophy throughout the 15-game winning streak and it’s enabled this group to look fresh nearly every night along the run. Not one player has played more than 37 minutes in a game during the streak itself, which is a phenomenal feat when you consider a guy like LeBron James is averaging 38.6 minutes per game this year all by himself. Here are the high minutes for the C’s top five minutes-getters during the hot stretch:
Irving: 37 (season-high 39 minutes on opening night)
Brown: 37 (season-high 40 minutes on opening night)
Tatum: 35 (season-high 36 minutes on opening night)
Meanwhile, James has played over 40 minutes already in seven games this year. Cleveland is 3-4 in those games.
This type of minutes mastery by Stevens is turning the Celtics into a new version of the Spurs. Gregg Popovich hasn’t played anyone over an average of 33 minutes per game for his last eight seasons in San Antonio, despite the level of star talent he had on that roster. Stevens is taking a similar approach and it’s leading to just as much success within Boston’s young season. The winning is nice for now but the extra rest is what could pay extra dividends down the road, if and when LeBron James ever shows signs of aging.