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Joe Mazzulla Signals Set Celtics Bench Rotation After Win Over Cavs

BOSTON — Lamar Stevens didn’t enter Thursday’s game with any indication he would play. He logged less than four minutes since early November and played next to no time with the team’s regular rotation. Then, a front court regular disappeared off the bench and Joe Mazzulla turned to call Stevens in the first quarter.

“When Luke went out, I thought there was a chance,” Stevens told CLNS Media. “You never know in this league. I just try to stay ready as much as I can. You just never know when your number’s going to get called. I just want to be prepared for that moment and continue to focus on controlling what I can control … in terms of conditioning and my preparation, I definitely feel like I’m ready for this moment and ready to help this team win.”

The Celtics scratched Luke Kornet after tip-off with an adductor strain that kept him off the bench with already Neemias Queta inactive in street clothes — a pre-determined designation. That drew Stevens into his first rotation minutes all season in a 116-107 win after Jaylen Brown started the game in a similar fashion to Tuesday’s first game — initiating a passing sequence to get Derrick White a three, scoring five straight points, then landing an alley-oop to Kristaps Porziņģis, who played through calf pain.

Stevens fouled three times upon entry, and drew a three-second call while trying to communicate with the sideline as Boston broke into a zone look. The Celtics worked two stops with Brown and Stevens playing the top of the 2-3, but Payton Pritchard quickly replaced the rusty reserve with Boston ahead 30-20. Sam Hauser and Al Horford posted +9 minutes, and Mazzulla indicated after a stronger finish from Stevens that the end of the bench faces many DNP-CDs when the roster enters games healthy. But that can change anytime.

“It’s Payton, Sam, Luke and Al, I’d say, when we’re 100% healthy,” Mazzulla said. “That’s our nine. They’ve developed a tremendous identity from the first week of the season, where everybody thought they weren’t good. They’ve turned into, that’s our team, they’ve done a great job. Then, the unit behind that, you have to have a lot of conversations with them, because I do think there are games, and I learned this last year, whether it’s back-to-backs or there are injuries, where they have to play and we need you to keep the train moving and do everything you’re supposed to do and win … I had no issue going with Lamar because of what I see him do every day.”

Cleveland emphasized Darius Garland against the Celtics’ drop defense as they did late on Tuesday, only to see a more crowds against him in the lane and occasionally traps around screens. Pritchard and Al Horford stopped Garland on consecutive tries early in the second, then they swung the ball inside and out to Sam Hauser for three in the more traditional bench lineup. Hauser and Horford shot 6-for-7, Hauser 3-for-3 from three, while Pritchard dished a pair of assists with no turnovers. Boston’s bench now ranks tied for fourth in net rating (+2.9).

The Celtics also continue to find ways to win minutes where Jayson Tatum steps off the floor, the star pressing at times in Thursday’s win and finishing 9-for-22 from the field, bolstered by two late dunks that separated Boston for good. They won stretches, 10-7 to close the first and 10-9 late in the third, and now outscore opponents by 4.5 points per 100 possessions with him off the floor — with a 104.2 defensive rating. They managed +2.9 last year, a similar group now enhanced by some new skill-sets who have only occasionally mixed in with that group.

“Stay ready,” Holiday told CLNS. “Played really aggressive, thought he played very well. It seemed like he was happy and excited to be out there, that’s always a great thing … there has to be some form of pressure in that. Maybe not even knowing coming into today’s game that he was going to play … mentally, I do think you have to be in a good place for that, to get out there and perform the way that he did.”

Stevens, after fouling three times in an ineffective first half over three minutes, returned alongside Tatum, Pritchard, Hauser and Jrue Holiday to begin the fourth. He grabbed a steal on the first possession, transferring Garland’s bad pass to Tatum for a pull-up three. Stevens grabbed Tatum’s ensuing miss from three and missed his own in the corner, which Horford grabbed as he cut inside.

Stevens caught a dump-off and slammed a two-handed dunk that sent the crowd into a frenzy. He hit two free throws and air-balled another three to finish his night. With Porziņģis looking hobbled at times in the win, Horford likely out entering a back-to-back against Orlando and Kornet’s status uncertain, he wasn’t in the locker room post-game, Stevens’ next chance could come soon.

“It’s just really gelling with the guys, not having a chance to get those reps in-game, I think some things just take time to gel and figure out what guys like to do, where they like to be,” Stevens said. “But it’s an easy-going group. When I’m on the floor, guys are talking to me constantly and trying to just help me make sure I’m doing all the right things.”

Bobby Manning

Boston Celtics beat reporter for CLNS Media and host of the Garden Report Celtics Post Game Show. NBA national columnist for Boston Sports Journal. Contributor to SB Nation's CelticsBlog. Host of the Dome Theory Sports and Culture Podcast on CLNS. Syracuse University 2020.

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