Forget the double big lineup. This was the triple small.
To start the fourth quarter of Thursday’s Eastern Conference showdown against the Brooklyn Nets, Celtics interim coach Joe Mazzulla trotted out a lineup of Payton Pritchard, Derrick White, Malcolm Brogdon, Grant Williams, and Luke Kornet. For those scoring at home, that’s three point guards, four players below the league average in height, and one kornet.
It was also five guys that had never played a minute together. But in a key stretch in a game in which both teams were dealing with absent superstars, Mazzulla leaned heavy on his depth pieces and was rewarded with some gritty play.
Celtics-Nets takeaways: Total team effort gives C’s fifth straight win
Here are the Spark Notes version of a dizzying two-minute stretch in which a little 6-0 burst helped Boston create some breathing room in what had been a one-possession game:
- Pritchard lit the fuse with a driving layup through traffic.
- White took a charge on the other end.
- Up against the shot clock, Pritchard connected on a fading rainbow.
- Brogdon picked off an errant pass and went coast-to-coast for a layup (and probably deserved a foul call)
- Jayson Tatum had been waiting to check in but got extended rest as Mazzulla pulled him back when the Nets took a timeout looking to stifle Boston’s momentum.
- The Celtics were still up eight when Tatum and Marcus Smart subbed back in with 8:31 to go, the lead soon ballooned to double digits, and Boston never really looked back.
On a night that Jaylen Brown sat out with a groin injury and Al Horford took his usual rest on the second night of a back-to-back, Boston still found a way to outlast a well-rested but Kevin Durant-less Nets team. Robert Williams III played a season-high 29:28, Derrick White was a starter-best +12 over 36:35. But it was Pritchard and Kornet who shined brightest.
Kornet finished with 11 points and 5 rebounds over 17 minutes while Pritchard added 9 points on 4-of-7 shoooting and was +13 in 14:36.
Here’s why it matters beyond some distance created at the top of the Eastern Conference standings: Some of the biggest questions about the Celtics in the ramp up to next month’s trade deadline center on Pritchard and Kornet.
Pritchard has played sparingly, even while Marcus Smart was out with a knee contusion. Given Boston’s lack of tradable assets, it was fair to wonder if the team might be willing to move some of its point guard depth if the right deal materialized. But Pritchard showed again Thursday how he can inject much-needed energy whenever Boston is shorthanded or struggling.
Kornet was excellent early in the season but he had been a bit uneven as Boston’s entire bench slumped into the new year. Kornet got an early first-quarter call against the Nets and responded with great energy. It was fair to wonder if Boston needed to explore another big-man addition, if only to limit the wear and tear on Williams III and Horford to the finish line of the season. But Kornet has routinely showed that he can hold the fort in the right situations.
Pritchard and Kornet didn’t just give the Celtics an offensive boost, they helped on the defensive side as well. The Nets were 3 of 13 shooting when Kornet was the primary defender and a mere 1 of 7 against Pritchard, per NBA tracking. Players not named TJ Warren were 1-for-13 against the Pritchard/Kornet combo.
Thanks in part to the bench crew, the Celtics are now 7-0 on the second night of back-to-backs this season. Boston is 13-1 on all ends of back-to-backs this year. That’s incredible considering this was a team fretting its depth when Williams III and offseason addition Danilo Gallinari both underwent surgery in September.
But the Celtics keep finding ways to win. The Nets became the third team in Boston’s five-game winning streak to be held below 100 points. The return of Williams III has supercharged Boston’s defense. The absence of Brown prevented the Celtics as Brooklyn loaded up on a tired Tatum and challenged the supporting cast to beat them.
And they did.
Will games like Thursday change how Brad Stevens operates in advance of next month’s trade deadline and the buyout market? Probably not. It would help if Pritchard and Kornet can continue to be impact players in smaller doses. But on a night where the Celtics quite clearly needed their energy, that duo brought it.