In the NBA, where even relatively mediocre players are endowed with world-class athleticism and skills, comebacks are not uncommon. Big leads can evaporate in mere minutes, which is why coaches are often hesitant to completely pull their starters.
But blowouts do happen, and when they do the winning team is usually afforded the luxury of resting its starters and giving its younger, less-prolific players a chance for valuable in-game experience. Which is precisely what Boston Celtics center Tristan Thompson was thinking following Boston’s mostly-dominant 121-109 victory over the Atlanta Hawks Friday night.
“It’s a good win, but we’re up 20, 22 points we got to close it out,” Thompson said to reporters after the game. “Those minutes, the last six minutes, those minutes are supposed to be dedicated to Tremont Waters, Aaron (Nesmith), Tacko Fall, Carsen Edwards. Those last six minutes are supposed to be for those young guys.”
“It’s our bad and it’s selfish on our part with the first and second unit that we didn’t stomp on their necks and let them bleed out to death because those guys deserve to go out there and get some minutes. They come in every day and they work hard and they watch us and support us from the bench. It’s only right that when we’re up like that we take care of business so they go out there and play and we cheer them on.”
On the strength of an energetic defensive team effort and 60.6% shooting through three quarters, the Celtics held a 25-point lead entering the fourth. But with 3:40 remaining, the lead had dwindled to just nine, forcing the Celtics to keep their frontline players in the game and dashing any hopes of sustained bench play.
The Jury is Still Out
Thompson’s gory comments were in response to a question about whether he’s comfortable yet speaking his mind and imparting advice to his new teammates. The 10-year veteran was a notable free-agent signing this offseason after spending his entire career in Cleveland, where he won a championship in 2016. The Celtics hoped his experience — and 10.2 rebounds last season — would benefit a decidedly young team.
But so far, at least in terms of play, the jury is still out. While his 8.2 rebounds are respectable, he’s been slow on defensive rotations and mostly a non-factor on offense — sorely in need of the training camp time he missed rehabbing a hamstring injury this offseason. Thompson’s slow start, combined with prolonged absences from Jayson Tatum and battering ram Marcus Smart, have contributed to major lapses in Boston’s defensive effort and a slump to the tune of eight losses in their last 13 games.
Friday night against Atlanta, however, the Celtics put it together on both ends. Energized by the return of refreshed starters, Kemba Walker and Daniel Theis, who sat out Wednesday’s loss to this same Hawks squad, the Celtics set an aggressive tone from the start, protecting the paint, harassing Hawks scoring machine Trae Young and jumping out to a big lead that they maintained until the Hawks run in the fourth.
‘Two-Big’ Comes up Big
Thompson’s 17 points on 8-for-9 shooting were accompanied by 14 from Theis, who added eight rebounds and three blocks. The so-called “two-big” Celtics lineup of Thompson and Theis, though often questioned by critics (and even head coach Brad Stevens) displayed a chemistry Friday that has been largely missing this season. They passed the ball effectively from the post and were the recipients of several lobs and layups.
“We all know that the numbers weren’t good in the first two or three weeks in the season,” said Stevens in the postgame presser. “But we won a lot of those games, we talked about that. And so I think they just got better, and they got a better feel for playing with one another.”
While acknowledging some matchup issues in the fourth, Stevens was overall pleased with Friday’s two-big output. “[We] were able to take advantage of the catches at the elbow, in the high-low, both in the zone and in the man,” said Stevens. “Both Theis and Tristan were excellent when they played together today I thought.”