Ref relationships, a fluid rotation, and what else we learned from beating the defending champs

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This might have been the most excruciating series of basketball games I’ve ever watched. Seeing one of the Celtics’ most promising seasons in recent memory teeter on the verge of the abyss was absolute agony. Kind of like how 2020 has felt like an eternity, the last seven games against the defending champs felt like seven years of player development playing out. Here are some lessons we learned from seven games against the Toronto Raptors:

Player rotations are not static

For a while, I’ve been basically advocating for Brad Stevens to simply “play our better players” and “not play our other players” without putting enough thought into who should come off the bench and when. Sure, it became obvious pretty quickly that Robert Williams probably shouldn’t see the floor against Serge Ibaka, but I’m not talking about the chess match of matchups and player combinations.

I mean the actual rotation of players as a group changed more game-to-game than I expected. For example, only one player in Game 5 played major minutes off the bench for the Celtics: Brad Wanamaker. I would never have expected this, and I’m sure the Raptors didn’t either. Boston won Game 5 by 22 points, and reverted back to their usual rotation after that.

Compare that to Stevens’ Game 3 approach where the Celtics ran nine deep in the first quarter. From the NBAVIZ game summary, we can see that Boston’s bench clearly outplayed Toronto’s after their starters lost the early minutes. Putting this much faith in Boston’s bench always feels like a gambit, but it paid off here and Boston was one miracle shot away from going up 3-0.

Robert Williams is good

We knew this, but we didn’t know just how much he had improved after recovering from his hip injury during quarantine until he became a necessary component to advancing past the second round.

This is another one of those “stats don’t tell the whole story” cases. Somehow, Rob is only credited with five blocks in Basketball Reference’s game logs. But even when he doesn’t block a shot, you can see the panicked passes that get thrown out of the paint when he closes in on Toronto’s guards making a move to the basket. They’re well aware any careless floaters are getting swatted, probably in the direction of somebody’s baby playing with a phone in the stands somewhere (I could really use some clarification on the bubble baby protocol).

However, what I really enjoyed from Rob was his willingness to shoot.

If he can smooth out his shooting motion, that shot can be a real tool for him. He’s got a long way to go, but his shot reminds me of how Marcus Smart used to launch the ball from the top of his head early in his career.

Here’s a look at Smart’s form in 2015, where the ball is practically sitting on his head before he shoots:

Here’s Smart now, keeping the ball mostly in front of his head:

Boston Celtics v Toronto Raptors - Game Seven

Photo by Andrew D. Bernstein/NBAE via Getty Images

If the Celtics could coach Smart out of some historically bad shooting early in his career, I think they can turn Rob’s shot into something a little more reliable.

Badgering the officials works

I’m going to leave my Tony Brothers conspiracies at the door and stick to an objective truth: Nick Nurse gained an advantage over Brad Stevens by constantly badgering the officials after every whistle.

Yes, I hate watching as much as you. No, I don’t want Brad to do it. Maybe there’s a less obnoxious middle ground for him to speak up more often, but it’s not really in his character. All I’m saying is that when we compare two coaches, we may have to take referee harassment into more serious consideration.

While I don’t expect Brad to become Nurse levels of annoying, I’m starting to feel disappointed in how much he lets our opponents get away with on the court. The Raptors undercut Jaylen twice in this series when he attacked the basket, which could have easily be the cause of a serious leg injury.

One dirty play doesn’t automatically make anyone a dirty player, but both Kyle Lowry and OG Anunoby undercutting Jaylen in the same series that Nick Nurse ran a play for himself as a decoy in Boston’s offense is where I want Brad to put his foot down. The Celtics are incredibly resilient on the floor, so let’s see it on the sideline as well.