One looks at the Celtics’ impressive record of 23-6 and thinks “Can they keep this up?” But what often goes overlooked, when appraising Boston’s record, is the fact that the Celtics have yet to be unleashed. Brad Stevens rests his superstars so conservatively - it could almost be called hibernation.
But it's the underappreciated production of Boston’s bench, this season, that is keeping the Celtics in, well... midseason form.
Brad Stevens has a predisposition to keeping everybody involved. Not only does this amplify the charisma of the Celtics (who happen to be one of the youngest teams in the NBA) but it's also conducive to keeping legs fresh for the playoffs.
The NBA is a league where it is common to see a celebrity player scratched from a game, late in the season, for no purpose other than to preserve them for the playoffs. Fans purchase exorbitantly priced nosebleed tickets, put on their official memorabilia, and show up to a game only to find that their hero is taking an elective night off.
Don’t get me wrong - 82 games makes for a long season. But extracurricular vacations have no place in professional sports. It’s downright unsportsmanlike. Off-days are inherent to the season schedule. Paid time off is for cubicle workers, not transcendentally athletic millionaires.
LeBron James deciding that he needs to sit a game, in March, so that he can “save it” for the playoffs is repulsive behavior.
Brad Stevens has found a way to render these late season vacations obsolete. He spreads the love (in this case minutes) from the first game to the last. Stevens doesn’t gas the franchise-faces in December. He uses his preponderance of “next man up” type guys to distribute repose throughout the lineup, all the way from Kyrie Irving to Semi Ojeleye.
If you look at the top four teams in the Eastern Conference, the disparity between the freshness of Boston’s superstars and the superstars of the other teams is glaringly obvious.
Al Horford leads the Celtics in minutes per game (MPG), averaging 32.7. This is by far the lowest MPG, compared to the other Eastern Conference minutes leaders. Guerschon Yabusele sees the fewest minutes, for Boston, at 4.8 MPG. The difference between the Celtics minutes leader and their least frequently played player is only 27.32 MPG. That’s better than the next smallest difference, owned by the 3rd-place Cleveland Cavaliers, by 2.68 MPG.
The Milwaukee Bucks have the largest gap in MPG, between their most relevent player and their least relevent player, at a whopping 34.0 MPG. That's about 7 minutes greater than the gap of the Celtics.
Every NBA game is a marathon, but Brad Stevens allocates playing-time like it’s a relay race.
The Celtics face opponents who overzealously push their big names to the point of premature exhaustion. It’s Boston’s refusal to mimic this policy that will ultimately keep them fresher than the rest of the league when the playoffs begin.
Take Giannis Antetokounmpo of the Bucks for example. He leads all players, amongst the top Eastern Conference teams, in minutes per game (LeBron is a close second at 37.3). Antetokounmpo, on an average night, plays 37.5 taxing minutes of NBA basketball.
How will a 23 year old kid fair in the postseason, when he’s been playing at his ceiling for the past 82 games, trying to single-handedly carry his team to the promised land?
Jason Kidd will inevitably have to rest the “Greek Freak” for a few games, towards the end of the regular season schedule. And when your team relies so heavily on their captain to bear the minutes burden, this could really turn out to be a self-induced wound.
When It Matters Most
So the next time that you’re watching the Celtics and question why Kyrie is on the bench late in the 3rd quarter, remember that this team has bigger fish to fry. The C’s are destined for a trip to at least the Eastern Conference Finals. Brad Stevens isn’t exactly coddling his superstars, but he’s certainly not putting the workhorse too far ahead of the cart.
Let 2016-17 Isaiah Thomas be a lesson to all of the regular season enthusiasts out there: If a team has to immolate their best player's body in order to make it to the playoffs, they probably don’t have a great shot at the title.
Boston has not only one of the best teams in the NBA, but also one of the most rested teams in the NBA. Coach Stevens has learned to save his players for when it matters most, while keeping everyone engaged from tipoff to final buzzer. Surely Stevens believes that this will translate to the strongest crossing of the finish line - in the form of an NBA Title.
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