Celtics

Here’s why the Celtics preferred starting lineup has been so good

In limited minutes, the Celtics' preferred starters have shredded opponents.

Celtics starting lineup
Boston Celtics guard Marcus Smart drives around a pick set by center Al Horford. AP Photo/Mary Schwalm

Ime Udoka hasn’t seen his preferred starting lineup as much as he’d like this season, which is a shame for the Celtics.

After all, the grouping of Al Horford, Robert Williams, Marcus Smart, Jaylen Brown, and Jayson Tatum has routed opponents this season — outscoring them by 18.3 points per 100 possessions, according to Cleaning the Glass.

But like many other teams this season, the Celtics have had their preferred lineups decimated by injuries and COVID absences, and their starters aren’t even their most-used group this season — that distinction belongs to four of the players above, but sub out Jaylen Brown for Dennis Schröder. Prior to Wednesday’s game, the Brown-less starters played 196 possessions (and are one of the worst lineups in the league) while the group with Brown played 181 possessions.

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“We haven’t seen a ton but we’ve like what we saw early on with it and got obviously, for a bunch of different reasons, we haven’t seen them much,” Udoka said. “And that’s the consistency that we’re gonna have to see going forward with this group really looks like and hopefully everybody stays healthy from here, and we have a favorable schedule in our eyes, home games as well. And I want to take advantage of this and see what that group does together.”

The big difference? The starters have obliterated opponents on the defensive end. Opponents have scored just 89.9 points per 100 possessions — a total that ranks in the 96th percentile league-wide. The offense has been middling — just 108.3 points per 100 possessions, 31st percentile — but the defense more than makes up the difference.

On Wednesday, the Celtics’ starters were finally whole again: Tatum returned from his COVID-19 absence, and Smart is back after dealing with a cut on his hand. Prior to those absences, the Celtics were without Horford (COVID), Brown (hamstring) and Williams (a variety of ailments) at various times.

The Celtics hope health sticks around for a while, and they might be due for a positive stretch. Per ESPN, they are fifth in the NBA in minutes lost to COVID and 10th in wins above replacement value lost.

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“It’s been a while since we’ve had a full roster, so we’ll get our rhythm back going,” Williams said. “But most of all, just giving it your all to have fun. I feel like if we do those things, we’ll be in a good position.”

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