Transitioning the lineup conversation from start to finish

There’s been a lot of talk this week about Celtics starting lineups. Doc Rivers started rookie Jared Sullinger at the power forward position Sunday in an exhibition vs. Armani Milano in Italy. Rivers said Wednesday he’d like to try Sullinger out some more in place of usual starter Brandon Bass.

“I’m going to try [Sullinger] a couple of games, and then I’ll throw Brandon in, and then I’ll put Darko [Milicic] in a couple of times,” Rivers said. “You can read into it whatever you want. But there’s been no decision made on anything.”

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Nor should there be. It’s the preseason. No better time to figure out what you have and how to employ it. Sullinger’s emergence is only a good thing for the Celtics. He could be the steal of the draft. But it’s doubtful that Doc’s tinkering now really reflects the coach tinkering with his starting lineups for the regular season. The veteran Bass will more than likely get the nod. A training camp “competition” both encourages Sullinger and motivates Bass. It’s a win-win.

The more interesting debate is who closes games for the Celtics. In other words, with the game on the line, what is the team’s “best” lineup. Rivers hinted at this Wednesday when talking about the starters.

“There’s a lot of thoughts,” said Rivers. “We may go to a transitional starting lineup, having three different lineups. So we put a lot of thought into it. We’ll figure it out.”

The debate over Boston’s best lineup to close games will likely leave out both Sullinger and Bass. Barring a matchup in which the Celtics need to go big, Boston’s best closing lineup is probably Rajon Rondo, Jason Terry, Paul Pierce, Jeff Green, and Kevin Garnett. If the Celtics need to go bigger, that’s where Bass and Sullinger come in. The competition now, then, is really a competition that looks at which players mesh better with the Celtics’ top unit when it counts. It’s not how you start but how you finish.

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For the first time in a long time, Rivers has some decisions to make on his closing lineup. The big men are in question, but to me the more intriguing competition is at the guard spot. Rondo is a lock, and Terry’s experience and shooting ability make him the likely two-guard on the floor to end games. But it’s not hard to see a scenario in which Avery Bradley or Courtney Lee earn that role instead. While Terry is the instant offense Rivers may need to close, Bradley can be instant defense. Lee may be the best 3-point shooter of the group. There’s certainly room to mix and match and sub offense for defense, but with Ray Allen the Celtics had a no-brainer backcourt to end games. Figuring out what the new closing lineup will be might be the most interesting storyline of the entire season.

What do you think? What’s Doc’s best lineup? Do you want to see Sullinger or Bass play more?

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