In every NBA game, the most valuable 12 minutes take place in the fourth quarter.
We saw in last year's postseason, as games got close down the stretch, head coaches with the personnel to do so were more inclined to place their five best available players on the court, as opposed to mixing and matching guys who fit traditional positions for the sake of doing so. For this reason, monitoring fourth quarter units for possible playoff teams should be pretty important throughout the regular season.
The Boston Celtics are a certain lock for the playoffs, and head into this season as a team with enough roster flexibility to invent some seriously creative units in any given game's final 12 minutes.
They're capable of either matching up with what an opponent wants to do, or setting their own tempo and forcing the issue.
I recently took a look at Boston's roster with the hope of figuring out which five-man unit might be the most beneficial in the fourth quarter. Before beginning, it should be understood that different opponents pose different matchup problems.
This article is a general assessment and shouldn't be blindly applied in every situation. (For example: the Lakers and Heat are both powerhouse title contenders, but the complications they provide are dissimilar.)
Here are a few key points I found relating to how the Celtics should mold their rotation in order to create the most dominant fourth quarter unit.
Last season this three man unit tied Garnett/Allen/Rondo for a team high 204 fourth quarter minutes together, and in a perfect world they would be on the floor for the final seven or eight minutes of every close game the Celtics play. They're the team's three best players, and they each compliment one another other like a perfectly assembled suit.
Rondo dictates the game's tempo, deciding when to run and which teammate should end each possession; Garnett stations himself in the frontcourt, anchoring Boston's defense and keeping the opposition honest as one of the most accurate pick and pop finishers in the game; and Pierce, being his Hall of Fame-worthy self, gets to the free-throw line, harasses the other team's best perimeter scorer, and spaces the floor with a still underrated three-point shot.
These three are cemented as cornerstones of what the Celtics want to do in every fourth quarter. That being said, it's time to look a little closer.
Should Garnett play center?
Or should he be designated back down to power forward now that the Celtics have a semi-legitimate rotation at center. I guess this depends on two things: 1) Your thoughts on Darko Milicic, Jason Collins, Chris Wilcox, and Fab Melo (stop laughing) as dependable late game options, and 2) What the opposing big men look like.
Due to in-game match-ups playing a major role in appropriately answering this question, it's a little difficult to say which is the better option. Personally, I prefer watching Garnett battle it out at the five because it makes Boston an overwhelming handful to deal with for opposing defenses. With Garnett playing center, all five guys on the court are serious offensive weapons; each one needs to be accounted for.
Two of Boston's three most used fourth quarter units in last year's playoffs were on the smallish side. A Ray Allen, Mickael Pietrus, Pierce, Rondo and Garnett unit saw the floor for 50 minutes, which led the team. Allen, Pierce, Rondo, Garnett and Brandon Bass came in at number two with 29 minutes, and Allen, Pierce, Rondo, Garnett and Avery Bradley played 25 fourth quarter minutes in only three games.
Allen has moved on to Miami, and Pietrus is...somewhere, so those two obviously need to be replaced. The most likely options are Jeff Green and...Jason Terry? Courtney Lee? Leandro Barbosa?!? The options are solid, but for the moment I'd rather take a look at someone who's proven he can handle the role.
Please, nobody forget Avery Bradley
Not everyone can play in the fourth, but Allen's departure created a regular spot to be filled. When healthy, Bradley is my personal favorite option due to what he gives Boston on both ends of the court.
He’s also the only one with relevant data to study. (I use the term "relevant" to mean we already know how Bradley coexists beside Garnett, Rondo and Pierce in the fourth quarter.
There's no way of positively knowing for sure how Terry or Lee will act alongside those guys in big situations. There's a more than great chance they'll be fine, but from a statistical standpoint Bradley is the safe bet heading into the season.)
Last season Bradley shared the court with Rondo in the fourth quarter for 66 minutes. In that time period, Boston was a devastating, fast paced basketball team. These units averaged 95.35 possessions per 48 minutes, which would’ve made them the seventh fastest team in the league.
The Celtics scored 114.7 points per 100 possessions with those two manning the backcourt, which is a ridiculous figure. Defensively, opponents shot 18.9% from behind the three-point line on 27 attempts per 48 minutes, and the Celtics only gave up 84.1 points per 100 possessions. Overall, these numbers mean Boston was a nightmare in the fourth quarter when Rondo and Bradley tag teamed the backcourt. And opponents probably cried because of it.
The stats here are great, but they cover a tiny sample size without taking into account the problems this backcourt could pose in several situations.
For instance, against a Joe Johnson, Deron Williams tandem in Brooklyn, giving Bradley significant time could be an issue. But this is where Boston's versatility might show its worth. Alongside Rondo, Pierce and Garnett, the Celtics could place Jeff Green on Johnson, and, assuming the Nets have a Kris Humphries, Brook Lopez frontcourt, Jared Sullinger (or Bass) to battle it out up there.
This is just one super specific situation. Zooming out for a minute, here's a more general look at how some other pieces fit in the grand scheme of Boston closing out all their opponents.
What to do with Brandon Bass?
The most common five man unit the Celtics used in the fourth quarter for regular season games was Rondo, Allen, Pierce, Brandon Bass, and Garnett. As has been mentioned, Allen is gone, so he'll obviously be replaced.
But Bass remains. Nothing against him, because he single-handedly won a critical Game 5 against Philadelphia in the Eastern Conference Semi-Finals last season, but he hardly qualifies as a lock in this spot.
Not with the additions of Green and Sullinger. Looking at it offensively, the Celtics shot 48% in a solid (on the smaller end) sample size of fourth quarter action with Bass, Garnett, and Rondo on the floor last year.
The elite jump shooting from both Bass and Garnett posed predictable problems for defenses, and on the other side of the ball, with these three on the court in the fourth quarter the Celtics held opponents to 24.3% shooting from beyond the arc. Not sure what to make of that number, but at least it's good! With his spot in the starting lineup in question, it'll be interesting to see where Bass stands at the end of games too.
An Incoming Fourth Quarter Savant
As we all know, it isn’t who starts the game that best indicates who the top players on a team are. Usually the five players on the court when the final buzzer sounds—when the value of minutes and baskets increases—are the five players who give that team the best chance of winning.
Last season in Dallas, Jason Terry averaged 9.6 minutes per fourth quarter, a team high. He shot 43% from beyond the arc while taking 32.7% of all Dallas’ fourth quarter three-point attempts. Terry is known for coming off the bench, which to the casual fan might read like a Scarlet Letter, but in the grand scheme of winning basketball games it has much less to do with individual ability than serving a player’s ego. And Jason Terry doesn’t need his stroked.
With Terry off the court in the fourth quarter last season, Dallas scored 90.5 points per 100 possessions. When he was on it, they scored 101.5 points per 100 possessions. That type of net difference suggests he was more than crucial to Dallas' offense, and surrounded by even more talent in Boston it'll be interesting to see if his ability to impact close games can be amplified.
Even though the personnel options this Celtics team has right now don't seem to ever end, this hopefully covers most of everything they will try to do in the fourth quarter this season. In some situations Boston will go large with their aforementioned laundry list of big men, but I don't see it happening too often in meaningful moments due to their offensive inefficiencies. Also, get ready for some generous helpings of Jeff Green.