By Matt Esposito
The Celtics starting point guard could not have picked a better time to miss a couple games. Sidelined with a minor, nonthreatening knee injury, fringe MVP candidate Isaiah Thomas is set to miss upcoming contests against the lowly 76ers and Nets. So why tune in to these games?
Over the past couple Celtics games, fans have watched future presidential candidate Brad Stevens play with the rotation. Tyler Zeller has seen some spot minutes. With the exception of the two games Thomas missed, Rozier has seen his minutes decrease. These are not major changes instead; Stevens is briefly experimenting with some rotations in order to prepare for the playoffs. One name he may want to consider giving more playing time: Jonas Jerekbo.
I present to you: Avery Bradley vs. Marcus Smart.
With Smart set to pick up ballhandling duties for the next two games, Cs fan will finally see what Smart can do when he has the ball in his hands for 36 minutes. Sure, we have seen Marcus pick up the slack for Bradley while the shooting guard was injured. Yet, Smart often shared his minutes with Thomas which forced him to spend time off the ball. This time around, he will be the primary quarterback. What should we be looking for from this two-game experiment?
As most dedicated Celtics fans know, IT4, Bradley and Smart will all be due for big pay days sooner than later. Danny Ainge and co. will not max out all three players. Logistically, he can only keep two. When AB was injured, Smart soaked up his minutes and the Cs played their best basketball of the season. Smart’s numbers went up and more importantly, he singlehandedly seemed to make plays which won games. If this was a glimpse of what life without Bradley will be like, Smart left many Cs fans thinking #0 is expendable.
We have seen the Thomas and Smart pairing. Lately, we have also seen the Bradley and Thomas duo. Although in limited minutes, those two have helped lead the Celtics starting five to a phenomenal +/- rating. Now we get to watch what AB and Smart can do together; a trial run for what could be a potential long term pairing. After all, we all know that not even Isaiah Thomas is untouchable under the gaze of Danny Ainge. If Thomas can be moved in a deal to make the Cs better, Ainge will pull the trigger. Do not forget that. So, this is what I will be looking for. Can Marcus help the Cs replace their star point guard’s production? We already know Smart is a better defender and can save more points than Thomas could. Can Smart make scoring contributions as well? I believe he can.
The Oklahoma State product is one of the most underrated passers in this league. Yet, he does not often have the ability to showcase his gifts while playing as a secondary ballhander. There is no excuse now. Watch for Smart to do more than make the sexy pass, look for him to make the right pass. Passes that keep the ball moving and exemplify the fluid offense Brad Stevens has installed. In a cross-sport reference, be on the lookout for hockey assists. If people like Horford, Crowder, Bradley and Olynyk have decent assist numbers tonight, it will be because Smart initiated an offense that allowed for them to flourish.
Shot selection. One of Smart’s greatest flaws is his shot selection. He is an above average off-the-catch and corner three shooter. Off of the dribble however, Smart struggles. With Thomas’s absence, Stevens will seek out Horford and Bradley to help run the offense. Will Smart let them? Will he let the ball flow where it may and be open for catch and shoot threes? In essence, we are looking for Marcus to let the game come to him naturally; allowing for the offense to flow organically instead of pressing the issue.
Also, we should be on Bradley alert. The Celtics have made their intentions clear that they are always looking for another star to help IT4 close out games. Can Bradley finally take that step forward? This is his chance to hammer home games through his offense. Proving he can do just this would significantly boost his chances of sticking around Boston.
When it’s all said and done, we should not over-analyze this game too much. Still, it is an important glimpse into a potential future. Do not focus much on the traditional stats. Instead, look to see if the offense avoids stagnation under Marcus. His ability to be a pliable offensive player is his greatest value. He can already pass and rebound. His shot will come with experience. Today’s NBA game depends on ball movement more than ever. If Smart can exhibit that he can keep the offense running smoothly, then his play may eventually force Bradley out of town come extension time.
As the playoffs move further and further along, the game seems to slow down more and more. Every possession becomes more critical. Rebounding becomes emphasized. Healthy shot selection is imperative to success. Defenses must be even stingier. I checked out some advanced stats to see which lineups Stevens may use if the Cs make a deep postseason run. That Swedish dude kept showing up in all the right places.
When researching total rebound percentage, I noticed that the two best lineups featured Jerekbo. The power forward has a knack for getting his nose dirty around the glass. One of the lineups saw Jerekbo playing alongside Crowder, Horford, Smart and Thomas. Could this rotation see some serious minutes during the playoffs? Presumably Jerekbo would be replacing Amir Johnson in this group. Although Johnson has been playing well lately, Jerekbo demonstrates better foot speed and basketball IQ. In my opinion, the gap between Jerekbo and Johnson’s defensive abilities is not drastic enough to where Jerekbo would be a liability in the playoffs. Look for Jerekbo to receive more minutes against smaller lineups. If the Cs meet the Raptors and Toronto throws out Ibaka, Tucker, Carroll, Derozan and Lowry then the Swede could be tossed in the game.
A smaller rotation like the aforementioned example has the potential to bomb away threes against the Celtics. Could Jerekbo keep up with this pace? Would he be able to help answer offensive surges from the opponent? Fortunately, Jerekbo is once again in the Cs best rotation concerning net three point percentage. This rotation featured JJ playing with Jae, Avery, Thomas and Horford. If the Cs get in a shootout, the stretch four can jump into the game seamlessly to counteract any offensive explosions. Imagine meeting the Cavs in the Eastern Conference Finals. Threes will rain onto the court from both teams. Matching up Jonas with Kevin Love makes me feel much better than say…Amir Johnson.
Unsurprisingly, Jerekbo is also a cog in the rotation which earned the Cs best overall net field goal percentage. What does this suggest? In the last five minutes of a close game, Jerekbo may be able to hold his own. He displays good defensive IQ which makes up for any lack of athleticism. He always seems to make a winning play, similar to Mr. Smart.
With the season winding down, Brad Steven will try and squeeze in a few more rotation experiments. Understandable. Look for what he does in late game situations. His rotations will ultimately be an indication of who he trusts to close out games. The numbers suggest that he should trust Jonas Jerekbo.