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Irish Coffee: Celtics no longer closing by committee?

As much as Celtics [1] coach Doc Rivers [2] says, “It doesn’t matter who starts; it matters who finishes,” he may never convince his players and their egos, but his actions speak just as clearly as his words. While the starting shooting guard and power forward turnstile continues twirling, Rivers plays matchups and hot hands down the stretch.

The C’s have played five straight games decided by six points or less, and the closing five has been as inconsistent as the team’s overall performance. Just as Courtney Lee [3] vs. Jason Terry [4] and Brandon Bass [5] vs. Jared Sullinger battle for starting roles, Rivers has used just about every combination imaginable of those four plus Leandro Barbosa [6] and Jeff Green [7] at the 2 and 4 spots in the final five minutes of the fourth quarter of those games plus the five-minute overtime period against the Wizards. Here’s the minutes breakdown.

Celtics 89, Wizards 86: Terry 3:09; Lee 2:03 | Sullinger 3:25; Green 0:54; Bass 0:48
Celtics 100, Wizards 94 (OT): Terry 5:00 | Bass 4:51; Green 0:09 (OT: Terry 5:00; Bass 5:00)
76ers 106, Celtics 100: Terry 5:00 | Barbosa 2:58, Green 2:02
Celtics 96, Bucks 92: Lee 4:40; Terry 0:22 | Bass 3:12; Green 1:23; Sullinger 0:01
Celtics 101, Bulls 95: Terry 5:00 | Bass 5:00
TOTAL (OUT OF 30 MINUTES): Terry 18:31; Lee 6:43; Barbosa 2:58 | Bass 14:03; Green 4:28; Sullinger 3:26

If you need more proof Rivers is willing to try anything, look at the lineups that finished the Sixers game alongside Rajon Rondo [8], Paul Pierce [9] and Kevin Garnett [10]. He played Terry for the entirety of the final five minutes and split the fifth spot between Barbosa and Green. But it’s becoming clearer who he trusts more.

In three of the past four games, Terry has played all five minutes down the stretch and the entire overtime against Washington, and he only favored Lee’s defense against an explosive Monta Ellis [11]. Likewise, Bass has played the large majority of those same minutes in the past four games while Sullinger only saw the floor for a single second.

And you can’t argue with Rivers’ success rate on the hot hands he’s played, winning the pot in 4-of-5 games. Obviously, the Big Three do most of the work down the stretch, but the six rotating guards and forwards have combined for 29 points on 11-of-13 shooting (84.6 FG%) in those two roles.

Celtics 89, Wizards 86: Terry 2-2 FT, 1 STL; Lee 0-1 3P | Green 0-1 FG
Celtics 100, Wizards 94 (OT): Terry 1-2 3P | Bass 0-1 FG, 1 REB
(OT: Bass 2-2 FG, 1-2 FT, 1 REB, 1 STL)
76ers 106, Celtics 100: Terry 1-1 FG, 1 TO | Barbosa 1-1 FG
Celtics 96, Bucks 92: Terry 1-2 FT | Bass 1-1 FG, 1 REB; Green 1-1 FG, 1 STL
Celtics 101, Bulls 95: Terry 2-2 FG, 2-2 FT | Bass 1-1 FG
TOTAL: Terry 14 PTS (4-5 FG, 1-2 3P, 5-6 FT), 1 STL, 1 TO; Lee 0 PTS (0-1 3P); Barbosa 2 PTS (1-1 FG) | Bass 11 PTS (5-5 FG, 1-2 FT), 3 REB, 1 STL; Green 2 PTS (1-2 FG), 1 STL

It might be coincidence that Terry and Bass, who have combined for 25 points on 10 shots in 32:34 between them in these situations, started the past two games and closed three of the past four, but it’s probably not. Outside of those two, Green provided some late-game heroics against the Bucks and Barbosa made a meaningless layup in the final seconds of the Sixers loss, but both Lee and Sullinger have made zero impact late in games.

“It’s definitely in my DNA to make big shots,” said Terry [12], “especially when the game is on the line, whether that’s with free throws or making a play or an assist or a shot to win or tie the game — that’s just who I am.”

Who closes games might mean more than who starts them, but as Rivers continues to favor Terry and Bass alongside the Big Three over Lee and Sullinger in both situations, he might put an end to the discussion altogether. Then again, the Celtics face a big, athletic shooting guard in Gordon Hayward when they host the Jazz [13] on Wednesday night, so Rivers might start Lee at the 2 — or even Green as he did during the preseason — and then ride the hot hand down the stretch. Of course, he’s been pretty good at that so far this year, too.

(Have a question, concern or conception for the next Irish Coffee? Send a message to @brohrbach [14] on Twitter.)