It’s about time Joe Mazzulla began thinking unconventionally about his roster, regardless of whether it required missing two starters to convince him to inject some new blood and enthusiasm into the rotation.
With Jrue Holiday and Kristaps Porzingis out with injuries, Mazzulla inserted Dalano Banton into the starting lineup in a shocking move. He then summoned two-way center Neemias Queta into a significant role and both flourished when the Celtics desperately needed a spark.
Two days after getting pounded by the more physical and passionate Magic, the shorthanded Celtics responded with a 113-103 win over the Hawks on Sunday at TD Garden.
The everyday standouts stood out in this wire-to-wire win. Jayson Tatum led Boston with 34 points. Jaylen Brown added 21. Sam Hauser knocked down four 3-pointers. But Mazzulla finally decided to give his underutilized players an opportunity, digging deep into the bench as he continues to search for all the answers.
“Really just looking for opportunity and giving those guys a fair chance to play,” Mazzulla said. “I thought both of those guys did a great job. Credit to our development staff that keep them ready, but those guys come in every day. They never know when they’re going to play and their name was called.”
Hence, the bench guys have tabbed themselves “The Stay Ready Crew.”
The Celtics are 17 games into the season, barely 20 percent, and there are so many possibilities, moving parts, and lineups to analyze that Mazzulla has to give some of his little-used reserves a chance to display their skill sets.
For Banton, it was defense, some point-guard duty, and flashing to the rim for layups. For Queta, it was establishing an imposing presence in the paint, grabbing key rebounds, and scoring. Queta, who strangely was sent to G League Maine for a game instead of Orlando in the loss to the mammoth Magic, returned and snapped up 10 rebounds along with 7 points in 15 minutes.
Mazzulla offered Queta some of Luke Kornet’s minutes and he took full advantage, giving the Celtics a physical presence and rim protector. In one stretch he swatted away Trae Young’s floater for a goaltending call, but it served as a warning about entering the Celtics’ paint without fear of repercussions.
It’s not that Queta is Patrick Ewing or Wilt Chamberlain, but he provides more resistance than anyone on the roster besides Porzingis. Mazzulla has been stingy with his bench beyond Al Horford, Payton Pritchard, and Hauser, but Sunday was perhaps an eye-opening experience for Mazzulla, who continues to expand his strategies.
“We’ve been playing eight [players] most of the season but you have to find moments to give guys opportunities to see what you can develop,” Mazzulla said. “It was a perfect opportunity to do it when you have guys out. You don’t want to do it [because you want your team healthy]. Hopefully they’ll get more opportunity.”
Mazzulla is a stubborn man, and on most occasions he wants to win the battle and the war. He wants to win every game but simultaneously develop players, find the best rotations, and accentuate team strengths. But it’s a methodical process to reach the apex and sometimes he has to sacrifice stretches in games to examine whether players such as Queta, Banton, Lamar Stevens, Oshae Brissett, or Svi Mykhailiuk can actually help in the long term.
He’s not going to find that out by sitting them on the bench. And it would have been easy for Mazzulla to start Hauser instead of the inexperienced Banton when Holiday was scratched.
“That’s something I’m much more comfortable doing this year,” he said. “You want to win every game but you have to kind of think with the end in mind. So you leave a lineup out there a little longer, whether it’s you keep a coverage going a little bit longer because you want to see it and you want to work at it.
“So yeah, I’m much more comfortable at that. Our guys are much more open-minded to that so you have to find that balance of doing both of those things. It may cost you a 6-0 or 8-0 run. I won’t let it cost us a game. I’m living in that comfort space there.”
That’s a significant admission because it means Mazzulla is more than willing to step out of his comfort zone and dabble with fresh ideas or newer faces who may make a long-term impact. President of basketball operations Brad Stevens sought NBA-experienced players who could help immediately and also develop into reliable contributors in the coming years.
When you trade away all your draft picks and are deep into the second luxury-tax apron, which limits free agency moves, there are limits to improve your roster. The Celtics nabbed Queta, a former second-round pick of the Kings. Banton was a Raptors prospect. Stevens played last season in Cleveland, while Brissett spent his previous three NBA seasons with thePacers. They all have NBA experience but it’s obviously going to take time for the reserves to all earn Mazzulla’s trust.
Sunday was a significant step in that process and it also proved the Celtics can handle quality opponents even shorthanded.