BOSTON — Jordan Crawford saved the Celtics’ season to an extent, so forgive Brad Stevens if he’s not ready to throw his point guard under the bus just yet.
Crawford’s move into the starting point guard role in mid-November changed the outlook for the Celtics as Rajon Rondo continued his recovery from a torn ACL. Avery Bradley struggled in the role and Jeff Green was poorly suited to acquire the ballhandling burden. The Celtics couldn’t get into their offensive sets, which led to bad shots and turnovers, which led to fastbreaks and easy shots for opponents.
Crawford, who was never known as a stabilizing force in Atlanta or Washington, changed all that. As a result, Stevens has given Crawford a longer leash through some of the guard’s eyebrow-raising moments. After Crawford took — and missed –the Celtics’ last three shots in Tuesday’s 92-91 loss to the Hawks, Stevens declined to single out Crawford in a game in which none of Boston’s starters reached double figures in scoring.
“I think it all is how you look at it,” Stevens said. “If we win the game, his growth as a point guard is expedited. If we lose it, it’s still a growing process. I think he did a lot of good things. He missed some shots. But guys miss shots.”
He missed a lot of them, in fact. Crawford missed 12 of his 15 field goal attempts and committed three turnovers, offsetting his five assists. There were six lead changes in the final three minutes but no scoring at all after Atlanta point guard Jeff Teague hit a pair of free throws with 1:30 remaining. Kelly Olynyk and Kris Humphries each missed a shot, then Crawford missed two 3-pointers and a fallaway 10-footer as time expired.
Crawford did not have much to say after the game — although it was more than Jeff Green, who left without speaking to reporters — but Bradley expressed confidence in him taking such shots again.
“Of course,” Bradley said. “Really, we’re comfortable with anybody. Any night, you can have somebody make those big shots. It’s just really what the coach draws up. We all have confidence in each other to be able to finish a game. If that’s Jeff or Gerald [Wallace] or Courtney [Lee], doesn’t matter who it’s for, we all trust each other.”
More than a third of the way through his first NBA season, Stevens has made it clear he’s not afraid to ride the hot hands. Three of the biggest victims of this have been Humphries, Olynyk and Lee.
It’s not that they’ve played poorly. It’s just that Jared Sullinger, Brandon Bass, Bradley and Crawford have played relatively well for long stretches. Humphries, Olynyk and Lee have been the odd men out more often than not.
The trio was on the other side of the lineup shuffle on Tuesday. Humphries, Olynyk and Lee played all 12 minutes of the fourth quarter together as Stevens went with the group that gave the Celtics their best stretch in and up-and-down game. They were the only Boston players in double figures, combining for 50 points, and were a cumulative plus-45. (None of the starters was better than minus-14.)
“It was different, I’m not going to lie,” Lee said. “But, I think it was after the Detroit game, [Stevens] came into the locker room and said one mistake that he made was taking me out when I was rolling. I think he’s still learning. He’s understanding how the game flows and how the game goes right now, and he’s coaching off that.”
Humphries came into the game averaging less than 16 minutes per game. He surpassed that by playing the final 18 minutes, logging a season-high 28:09 in all. While some might have wondered when the starters would check back in, Humphries never looked over his shoulder while he was piling up 18 points and 10 rebounds.
“We were competing,” Humphries said. “That’s probably the most minutes I’ve played this year, so luckily I’ve been working out. Everyone involved, from strength and conditioning coaches to athletic trainers, has been helping me stay ready to be able to play extended minutes.”