With a bevy of switchable players, the Boston Celtics’ current crop of personnel are well equipped to partake in their own form of small-ball.
Quickly backing up from the Boston Celtics, the Dallas Mavericks are widely known as having one of the NBA’s best offenses, leading the league in points per 100 possessions, according to Cleaningtheglass.com.
It must be said, he’s right; the league is moving away from post-ups to more small-ball styled lineups. Lineups similar to the current Houston Rockets starting five.
Post-ups, dropped from an average of 15.5 to 8.3 per game league-wide, a drop of over 45 percent since the 2013-14 season.
Yes, one could argue that Boston played small-ball all season. Theis has the measures of a traditional small-ball center at 6-8. While he occasionally holds his own on the perimeter, he doesn’t possess the same kind of fluid defensive movements as the P.J. Tucker‘s, Robert Covington‘s and Draymond Green‘s of the league.
In the case of the Boston Celtics, they have a few playoff capable, small-ball lineups.
In past playoff series, Brad Stevens-era Celtics often featured small-ball style lineups. During the 2017 playoffs, particularly against the Wizards, we even saw Boston feature a four-guard lineup accompanied by either a stretch five in Kelly Olynyk or Al Horford.
It’s important to remember, “the playoff seven,” consisting of a healthy starting five with Smart and Kanter ready off the bench, only played eight games thus far, precisely 10 percent of the total number of games played during this abridged season.
Despite limited opportunities given this injury-riddled team, Brad Stevens and the Boston Celtics’ coaching staff experimented with their version of small-ball. This playoff seven may balloon to a playoff nine.
These were the three most-played small-ball type lineups this season, and while all signs point positive in terms of point differential, it’s hard to infer much because of the small possession sample size.
- Marcus Smart, Jaylen Brown, Gordon Hayward, Jayson Tatum, Grant Williams — 45 Possessions (All Defensive Lineup)
- Kemba Walker, Marcus Smart, Jaylen Brown, Gordon Hayward, Jayson Tatum — 32 Possessions (Celtics Death Lineup)
- Kemba Walker, Marcus Smart, Jaylen Brown, Jayson Tatum, Grant Williams — 30 Possessions
The shift between Williams and Ojeleye may be more matchup dependent. While I don’t expect either to get more than 15 to 18 minutes per game in the postseason, the debate between the two is interesting.
Ojeleye, who is somewhat of a specialist, on paper had a more consistent shooting season from beyond the arc. Williams had a tail of two seasons story, shooting wise. Initially, he went zero for 25 from three-point range during his first 20 NBA games but shot an impressive 42.4 percent from beyond the arc after the slow start.
Unlike Ojeleye, Williams has experience playing the five (37 percent of his time was spent at the center position) this season, and defensively the numbers for the Celtics when he plays the five are elite.
With that in mind, one could also make a case for Ojeleye because of his playoff experience.
He did a fantastic job against the significantly taller Giannis Antetokounmpo during the 2017-18 playoffs. When matched up against Antetokounmpo, Ojeleye held him to 33 percent shooting from the field, zero for four shooting from three, and also forced two turnovers.
Again, the NBA is entering not only the era of small-ball, but the era of sturdy ball — hyper-switchable players with the strength to defend the post, the speed to guard on the perimeter, and the wingspan to defend in passing lanes.
Both Williams and Ojeleye have that sturdiness element to their game.
The Boston Celtics may need to zig while other Eastern Conference teams zag. They may need to sacrifice rebounding for floor spacing and shot creation, going small while other teams stay relatively big.
Going big, for the Cs, means an increased role for Enes Kanter at the center spot.
To his credit, Kanter has massively improved his ability to protect the rim this season. Throughout his career, he never ranked above the 40th percentile in block percentage in his career, but this season, playing limited minutes, he was in the 65th percentile.
Still, his ability to switch onto smaller defenders has always been his weakness. Going small may force the Celtics to double Embiid in the post, but this may be a winning strategy if the 76ers fail to provide enough floor spacing.
Boston may not need to switch every matchup if they square up against Philadelphia, but Kanter’s lack of spacing on offense — i.e., not being able to take Embiid away from the rim — will hurt the team’s chances on the other side of the floor. I could see a world where Kanter against the Indiana Pacers and Domantas Sabonis makes more sense than against the Sixers and Embiid.
However, on the flip side, according to BBal Index’s rating system, Tatum, Hayward, Smart, and Brown are all above average interior defenders.
Both Hayward and Tatum had sneaky good defensive rebounding numbers, and we know that Smart and Brown are two of the most versatile defenders in the league. This season we’ve seen Smart spend 40 percent of his time matched up with the three-through-five spots and Brown spent 60 percent guarding the same positions.
On offense, going small, in particular with the Celtics’ version of their death lineup, puts the best three-point shooters on the floor.
Okay, technically speaking, this isn’t true.
Putting the best shooters on the floor allows Boston to stretch out opposing defenses. Defenses that rely on funneling their opponents towards the rim.
Interestingly enough, Milwaukee, Toronto, and Miami gave up the highest number of three-pointers this season yet ranked first, second, and 12th in terms of points allowed per possession.
This strategy would deter the Brook Lopez‘s, Marc Gasol‘s, Bam Adebayo‘s, and other capable rim protectors from idling by the rim, contesting floaters in drop coverages, and limiting weak side help. These teams may live with giving up the Grant Williams long ball, but putting the best shooters on the floor gives the Celtics at least the chance to take away these teams greatest defensive strengths.
Daniel Theis has been an extremely underrated center this season, especially in his ability to seal off help defenders, but going small puts the Boston Celtics’ five best players on the floor. Talent in the playoffs wins games.
Generally speaking, teams in the playoffs prefer to go small when it comes to closing games down the stretch. Just look at the 2016-17 Finals as an example.
Yes, the sample size is small, but Boston has eight more games to experiment with possible small-ball lineups. With the right level of communication, I believe the Celtics can fully commit to this style of play, even against the elite Eastern Conference bigs.
Let’s see if the shamrocks pivot towards a more malleable lineup, with Kemba Walker steering the ship accompanied by some combination of the switchable six.