Why you should care
Because thanks to coach Brad Stevens’ offensive system, Celtics point guards don’t have to tower to control the court.
As the second-seed Boston Celtics barrel through the playoffs with an NBA Finals spot in sight, another undersized, overlooked point guard is wreaking havoc on the Eastern Conference. But gone is the former heart and soul of the Celtics — two-time NBA All-Star and last season’s 28.9 point per game scorer Isaiah Thomas.
In his place, another point guard with a knack for the bright lights of playoff basketball has captured TD Garden. It’s no accident that many Celtics fans these days are wearing “Scary Terry” Rozier T-shirts in honor of their favorite spark plug. Rozier, a former nondescript backup with career averages of 7.2 points and 2.1 assists per game, has stolen the show this postseason. He’s hardly winning games himself, but Rozier is logging 17.4 points, 5.6 assists and 5.6 rebounds per game these playoffs — executing Boston’s offense to perfection and proving that coach Brad Stevens’ Pace, Space & Pop system might be the best fit for small point guards in the NBA.
Since Stevens was hired in 2013, all but one of the Celtics starting point guards have been 6 feet 2 inches tall or shorter.
The only exception? Currently injured Boston star Kyrie Irving, who towers at 6 feet 3 inches. With postseason appearances in the past four seasons, Boston has proved most successful when point guards average 6 feet or less. The 5-foot-9-inch Thomas led the way from 2014 to 2017, blossoming from a prototypical second-unit scorer into a bona fide NBA star and team leader.
The 6-foot-1-inch Rajon Rondo started the year before Thomas did, and — with Irving injured since March — Rozier looks like the second coming of Thomas, morphing into a dangerous scoring threat and fiery floor general who makes his teammates better. Proof, once again, that the right characters can flourish under Stevens’ tutelage.
Stevens talks often about getting the best out of his young, overlooked players by first investing in them as people, and then handing them the keys to his nifty offense. “I think that you can really coach people, and be even more constructively critical, if you’ve shown that you’re invested in them as a person,” Stevens told Boston.com.
“Brad Stevens built a system around Isaiah Thomas, similar to what Larry Brown did with Allen Iverson when they went to the NBA Finals [in 2001],” says Fox Sports NBA Insider Chris Broussard. Thomas himself has continually praised Stevens — even after Thomas’ unceremonious departure last summer.
No way in hell Brad Stevens doesn’t win Coach of the year. No disrespect to the other head coaches but He’s by far the best coach in the NBA— Isaiah Thomas (@isaiahthomas) May 9, 2018
Entering a contract year, an injured Thomas was traded to Cleveland for Irving last August. Thanks to injury and struggles adjusting to Cleveland’s system, his once incredible stats (28.9 points per game and 5.9 assists in 2017) plummeted in Ohio. The Cavs soon realized the mismatch and, in February, Thomas was shipped to Los Angeles for parts. He performed in a return to the backup point guard role, averaging 15.2 points per game for the Lakers, but his days as a franchise savior are undoubtedly over. Meanwhile, Irving fit in with the Celtics seamlessly.
The fact that Boston hasn’t missed a beat since Irving went down is only further proof that Stevens’ Pace, Space & Pop system, which emphasizes up-tempo ball movement, floor spacing and pick-and-pop sets in the half-court, creates opportunities for point guards of all make and model. “The Celtics lost two of their best players, and they are in the conference finals,” says Broussard. “They beat a Philadelphia team that had better players and more superstars.”
[Coach Brad] Stevens’ constantly evolving offensive sets lead to opportunities for surprising heroes.
“The key for the Celtics in their series versus the Sixers series was Terry Rozier,” says Mark Bacon, senior staff writer for Main Event Sports.“I don’t think anyone saw how good he could be as a starter.” And, perhaps, that’s exactly the point. Like Thomas before him, Rozier has found success in Boston not because he is short (by NBA standards). He has found success because, much like Golden State out West, Boston features an innovative offensive system with a plethora of talented scorers.
So while opponents are focused on stopping star forward Jaylen Brown, sensational rookie Jayson Tatum or five-time All-Star Al Horford, Rozier is able to play fast with space to score and take advantage of mismatches that arise through the pick-and-roll game. Stevens’ constantly evolving offensive sets lead to opportunities for surprising heroes. So when forgotten Shane Larkin (5 feet 11 inches) plays well in a backup role, or when Rozier breaks out as Boston’s second-leading scorer in the playoffs, it’s hardly a surprise. “I really think [Stevens] is on a Gregg Popovich track,” Broussard says, equating the 41-year-old wunderkind’s future to that of San Antonio’s Hall of Fame coach.
Stevens has developed a system that is stature-friendly, built for short point guards to succeed. With his plug-and-play system in place, will the Celtics rattle off a Bill Belichickian era of sustained success? For Stevens’ sake, let’s start with one NBA title.