Brad Stevens is a very good coach. The last five years at the helm of the Boston Celtics have proven that much. But one of his flaws, some might call it, is that he doesn't tend to let the younger guys play through their mistakes. Sure, he did it with Jaylen Brown and Jayson Tatum, but as top-five picks they're exceptions. When it comes to mid- and late-first-round picks in the Brad Stevens era, players have to be nearly immaculate to stay on the court.
Some of that is a function of the team's construction. The last few years have granted Stevens a deep enough roster that he doesn't have to play rookies and sophomores because he had steady vets who do exactly as they're asked, even if the upside is low comparatively. That is not the case this year. The Celtics' top seven players are all reliable and good, but after that, it's a crapshoot. Frustratingly, during the seeding games, Stevens has mostly stuck with his vets instead of turning to the rooks and seeing what they have.
That finally changed on Wednesday night, as the Celtics beat the tar out of the Brooklyn Nets. Most importantly, one Romeo Langford played 26 minutes, a career-high, and made winning plays all night. Langford, the team's first draft pick in 2019, has struggled throughout his rookie season. Most of it was spent rehabbing from various minor maladies up in Maine, getting some work in with Boston's G League team. Before the season was postponed, he was earning his way onto the floor with stingy defense and showed flashes of what made him a tantalizing wing prospect heading into last June.
Fast-forward four months, and Stevens appears to have lost the faith he was building up in Langford. The first three bubble games featured very little of the young forward. Langford is not the reason the Celtics won last night. They were clicking on all cylinders in what could definitely be called "one of those nights" where nobody could miss a shot and just about everything was going their way. But Langford showed he could, and should, be trusted with playoff minutes going forward.
Now, I'll be honest with you, dear reader. This whole concept is less about Langford himself and more about the alternatives. Specifically, playing him instead of Brad Wanamaker or Semi Ojeyele. Ojeyele, I recognize, is important for one reason and one reason only: guarding Giannis Antetokounmpo. He's one of the few defenders in the league who can do an adequate job of staying in front of the reigning MVP for 25 minutes per game. But my God, he cannot do a thing offensively. It's painful. Not only does he struggle from deep (he was 2-of-8 before hitting 3-of-5 last night), he hesitates when the ball comes his way. It kills the ball movement. He's a ball-stopper without the added benefits that usually come with that honor. Despite being the fourth (at best) offensive option on the floor whenever he's out there, Ojeyele managed to turn the ball over on consecutive possessions last night, with a travel followed by a charge. It would be nice if he wasn't a complete zero on offense if the time comes to play the Bucks, but right now he is a net negative.
And don't even get me started on Wanamaker. I've been a champion of the former Euroleague guard's play since he joined the team in 2017. Most of the time, he is competent, and that's all you need from your 10th man and third point guard. But he has been brutal in the bubble. The absolute last thing anyone wants to see is Wanamaker taking a deep pull-up two while Gordon Hayward and Tatum are on the floor, which has happened several times over the last two games. Somewhat similar to Ojeyele, Stevens needs to play Wanamaker in these games because Kemba Walker is on such a strict minutes restriction until the playoffs start. But one of Boston's biggest strengths is having five players who can run pick-and-roll. Why is Wanamaker doing that while Brown and Marcus Smart hang out on the perimeter? Smart can't score like the rest of his teammates, but the man can pass. Wanamaker struggles with even that.
Which brings us all the way back to Langford. He cannot do what Ojeyele can defensively against bigger players, and he can't run an offense yet. But you know what he can, and will, do? Bust his ass and get the hell out of the way. He'll make hustle plays. He can get overpowered due to his lack of size, but he's still a plus defender with the youth and athleticism to hang with most backcourts. Four points, three assists, two rebounds, and two blocks isn't a particularly noteworthy statline, but a +27 net rating certainly is. Half of this one-minute highlight reel from last night is his defensive skills.
The Celtics don't need more offense. They need prickly defenders who know their role on the other end of the floor. Ojeyele and Wanamaker have both used their bubble minutes to prove they are more than that, and it has not worked out in the slightest. Unless Boston is playing Milwaukee, I'd much rather see Langford out there locking down the perimeter and giving the ball up unless he's wide-open on offense. So please, Stevens, for all that is good: Give Romeo Langford more minutes.