Heading into this season, the Boston Celtics were one of several contending teams that figured to utilize smaller, versatile lineups in an effort to match up as best they could with the Miami Heat and LeBron James.
Jeff Green’s contract, and Danny Ainge's decision over the summer to invest in perimeter threats as opposed to quality big men (a choice that’s so far hurt them badly) proves that a small-ball style is one they planned to lean on this year. Let’s take a look at how some of those lineups have done so far, while also peeking ahead at what it means in the near future.
Kevin Garnett is Their Spine
Everything hinges around Kevin Garnett, as it should. His height and defensive tenacity allow him to guard traditional centers and strong power forwards, while his elite jump shot stretches the floor on offense, keeping driving lanes clean.
So far this season the Celtics have played with Garnett at center in several different five-man units that lack a traditional power forward. The most common one being Garnett, Green, Paul Pierce, Jason Terry and Rajon Rondo. This unit is shooting 38.6 percent from the field in 50 minutes played, which is awful, but has so far been good enough to outscore opponents by five points per 100 possessions.
This same unit with Courtney Lee instead of Terry has barely been used at all this season, but the small sample of data doesn’t promise anything exciting. Look for both units to be used a bit more as we go into the winter and spring, for the sole reason that, as constituted, there aren't very many alternatives that pose a better solution.
The Three-Guard Combo
Rondo, Lee and Terry have shared the floor for 22 minutes this season, which is understandable, given their average collective height of 4’11”. Also not so surprising is how awful defensively they’ve been on the court together, allowing 120.9 points per 100 possessions.
They score only 94.9 points per 100 possessions, which makes for quite the disparity, but the havoc this group could potentially create keeps them as an intriguing option—in small doses—for the rest of the season. They spread the floor wide for Rondo drives to the basket, but if Lee isn't able to get physical with stronger forwards, the negatives could outweigh the positives.
But once Avery Bradley brings his elite "ability to take an opposing ball-handler out of the game" back to the court, Boston's use of three guards at a time could be lethal, especially if Lee begins to knock down his corner three-pointers.
Solving the Garnett Dilemma
When Garnett rests, the Celtics suffer. This problem should lessen in the postseason when his minutes get a boost, but until then Doc Rivers needs to find a consistent solution. One possibility is playing two power forwards at the same time, foregoing a traditional backup center.
Brandon Bass and Jared Sullinger have shared the court for 70 minutes, and the results have been brutal. But on Wednesday night against the Cavaliers they shared the court and played pretty well as a frontcourt tandem.
Defensively they give up serious size, but Sullinger’s ability to keep possessions alive on offense with his work on the glass could be a reason Rivers chooses to lean this way as opposed to bringing in Chris Wilcox or Jared Collins.
(Even though he’s listed at 6’9”, rookie Jared Sullinger might be Boston’s best rebounder. Here he is extending a play against the Cavaliers.)
Also, both Sullinger and Bass have above-average mid-range jump shots for their position, which will hypothetically draw opposing big men out on the perimeter.
A Vital Trio
Where their nucleus currently stands, Boston’s most important trio is Garnett, Pierce and Green. If all goes according to plan, these three will be on the court in big minutes during the postseason's most pressure-packed moments.
In 107 minutes of play, units that include these three have defended extremely well this season, holding opponents to 95.1 points per 100 possessions (which would stand as the best defense in basketball).
What’s especially exciting about this group is what it could be on offense. So far these units are shooting three-pointers, getting to the free-throw line, and drawing fouls at a much higher rate than the Celtics' team average. They also turn the ball over less and rebound better.
Granted, they’re shooting 38 percent from the floor, but that number will hopefully rise as Green and Pierce play beside one another a bit more.
Any good statistics when these three share the floor are encouraging signs for the whole team. Despite their blatant need for more overall size, the Celtics are doing an adequate job fiddling around with some interesting small-ball lineups. It’s what must be done if they want to close out playoff games against the likes of Miami this spring.