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Wednesday, April 2, 2014
Could rare bad loss promote change?

By Chris Forsberg

As if Wednesday night couldn't get any worse, the Boston Celtics were greeted with news that their plane had encountered mechanical issues and the team was forced to stay overnight in the nation's capital after a 118-92 drubbing at the hands of the playoff-bound Washington Wizards.

The good news: Wednesday's loss was an outlier. The Celtics have, by and large, played hard and stuck close in most of their games during this rebuilding campaign. Over the course of an 82-game season, you lay a couple of eggs and the Celtics are simply hoping this is the only one they'll have to put in their Easter basket.

Jared Wickerham/Getty ImagesKelly Olynyk and Jared Sullinger have been a solid combo for Boston throughout the 2013-14 season.
That said, the first five minutes on Wednesday night were particularly cringe worthy for Boston and this fight was pretty much over from the opening bell. On the first possession of the game, Marcin Gortat rolled free off a weak side pick-and-roll and delivered a loud jam over Brandon Bass, who stepped up when Kris Humphries couldn't recover to contest. It's hard to ignore how much the Bass/Humphries combo has struggled recently, but the team's defensive rating with that pair on the floor since the All-Star break is a head-shaking 112.8 (or 8.2 points above the team's season average).

Which makes us wonder if Wednesday's lopsided loss is the perfect excuse for coach Brad Stevens to shuffle the deck a little bit. Regardless of how well the Jared Sullinger/Kelly Olynyk combo has played with both players coming off the bench recently, it might be time to elevate them to the starting lineup and see if they can sustain that success against opponents' starting frontlines. At the very worst, Sullinger could pair with Humphries in a more minor lineup overhaul.

Here's part of the sell on the larger frontcourt overhaul: The Rajon Rondo/Sullinger/Olynyk three-man combo has been excellent since the All-Star break. The team's offensive rating (points scored per 100 possessions) with that group is a robust 107.4, or 7 points better than Boston's average during that span. What's more, that combo's defensive rating is 101.8, or 6 points better than the team's average since the break.

So even if Avery Bradley needs more time to rest his sore Achilles and regardless of who is at the swingman spot (there's a case to be made for more minutes for energy-lifting Chris Johnson, who negated a poor shooting night Wednesday by grabbing eight rebounds during 33 minutes of floor time), the Celtics play well when the Rondo/Sullinger/Olynyk combo is on the court.

This is the time of year when lottery-bound teams often throw the keys to the car to the kids, so why not let Sullinger and Olynyk get reps against starter-caliber talent? Despite the lopsided nature of Wednesday's game, Sullinger and Olynyk played hard for the final 12 minutes. Sullinger scored a game-high 25 points on 8-of-15 shooting, while Olynyk was impossibly in the positive for plus/minus at plus-8 in 21 minutes of floor time.

This isn't an overreaction to one game. Stevens has admitted in recent weeks that he thinks a lot about possible lineup tweaks and even suggested the most likely area to be swapped would be the frontcourt.

An exasperated Stevens trotted out little-used center Joel Anthony on Wednesday for 13 minutes. With the game out of reach, Olynyk and Sullinger helped Boston play a pretty even fourth quarter against Washington (with the Wizards up big, the hosts could afford to downshift in the final frame).

Since the All-Star break, only one two-man combo on Boston's roster (minimum 100 minutes together) has a better net rating (offensive rating minus defensive rating) than the Olynyk/Sullinger combo (+10.2 over 217 total minutes). The Phil Pressey/Chris Johnson pairing is plus-11.3 over 166 minutes together, speaking again to the bench's success.

Stevens has been leery of breaking up a good thing and Boston's bench has been excellent lately. But with seven games remaining in the season, this is the time for Stevens to mix and match a bit and see what happens.