Boston Celtics: Pondering on how Cs will close out postseason games

BOSTON, MA - APRIL 6: Ben Simmons #25 of the Philadelphia 76ers is fouled by Robert Williams III #44 of the Boston Celtics in the first half at TD Garden on April 6, 2021 in Boston, Massachusetts. NOTE TO USER: User expressly acknowledges and agrees that, by downloading and or using this photograph, User is consenting to the terms and conditions of the Getty Images License Agreement. (Photo by Kathryn Riley/Getty Images)
BOSTON, MA - APRIL 6: Ben Simmons #25 of the Philadelphia 76ers is fouled by Robert Williams III #44 of the Boston Celtics in the first half at TD Garden on April 6, 2021 in Boston, Massachusetts. NOTE TO USER: User expressly acknowledges and agrees that, by downloading and or using this photograph, User is consenting to the terms and conditions of the Getty Images License Agreement. (Photo by Kathryn Riley/Getty Images) /

In the playoffs, it’s about matchups and switchability — to quote a Nate Duncan axiom, it’s about exploiting weaknesses. The LA Clippers are a team that I look at and say, wow, they are switchable, suited for the playoffs, and suited to close games. The Boston Celtics, on the other hand, are not necessarily in the same position, which makes things tricky.

Small-ball, or maybe we should call it switch-everything-ball-come-playoff-time, has been popularized.

Think Anthony Davis shifting down to the center spot. It’s where the Marcus Morris’s, PJ Tucker’s, Robert Covington’s, and Royce O’Neale’s of the world earn their value.

Switchablitly at the center spot comes at a premium these days. Boston Celtics fans may harken back to a simpler time when Al Horford played lockdown defense against Joel Embiid in 2018, or the Semi Ojeleye brick wall defense against Giannis Antetokounmpo during that same playoff run.

Oh, the good old days ….

With small-ball (micro-ball) still very much a thing, the Eastern Conference is big. I mean, really, physically big.

Big, mobile, vertical, and good!

You’ve got your stretchy-bruiser types with Joel Embiid, Brook Lopez, and play-in candidate Domantas Sabonis.

You’ve got your mobile, playmaking-centric, light on their feet, not quite 7-footers with Julius Randle and Bam Adebayo.

And then you have lob-catching springboards in Clint Capela (candidate for Most Improved Player), De’Andre Jordan, and Nicolas Claxton.

So for the Boston Celtics, come playoff time, what is the plan?

I think the most significant divide for Boston Celtics fans will likely boil down to four different permutations:

  1. The Tristan Thompson Camp
  2. The Robert Williams Experience
  3. Some semblance of Micro-Ball
  4. Everything Else

Recent additions Luke Kornet and Jabari Parker have had some moments. However, in opposition of Houdini expert, Mark Nilon, I’d expect sparse minutes from these two in the playoffs. Expect Grant Williams and Semi Ojeleye also to get this same game-by-game, matchup-by-matchup type treatment.

I do not see any of these four players closing games for the Celtics, but things may change.

Let’s first hone in on the Thompson vs. Williams debate.

Before you say, “excuse me, but Time Lord is our end-all-be-all closing center post-Theis trade, he leads TT in pretty much every advanced stat and is a much better playmaking hub”, let’s try and be a bit more nuanced when considering the realm of possibilities.

What I am trying to say is maybe Williams is the best option 75 percent of the time when closing games, thus there can be multiple right answers. I am a proponent of using numbers to back up the eye test. Marrying the two together isn’t the end-all-be-all, but context and matchups are essential.

The Williams/ Thompson split may come down to just that. Where TT is the eye test and Time Lord takes the numbers side.

It also may boil down to defensive philosophy and asking yourself how a center should operate. I think the primary split between the two players comes from how you want your center to defend.

Ultimately, it comes down to stoutness and switchability vs. rim protection and vertical gravity.

When the Celtics first signed Thompson with the full-Mid-Level Exception last offseason, the theoretical upgrade came with the notion that he could be a more effective, less-foul prone version of Daniel Theis.

Quick side recognition to Theis for his impact on the Bulls and his foul % reduction – Boston will miss you.

Overall, Thompson was signed for his toughness. He was a player who logged heavy playoff minutes and was on a championship-winning team.

Since the start of April, in part due to lack of playable bigs but also in part due to a simulation of playoff-type minutes, Thompson has seen a notable (around five minutes per game) bump in playing time.

From a lineup splits standpoint, it’s hard to assess Thompson’s +/- given that the Boston Celtics started their season with the strange double-big concept, accounting for the top two most played Thompson-based lineups.

Defensive numbers are tricky and at times they fail to tell the full story.

The advanced plus/minus-based metrics all favor Time Lord mainly because of his ability to protect the rim and efficiency as a lob threat. Williams currently ranks 14th in the league in total dunks on the year.

Centers such as Nerlens Noel and Jakob Poeltl have always traditionally ranked high in these defensive one-number metrics principally because of their defensive activity around the rim.

There is also always some random center that has ranked highly in the Player Efficiency Rating metric.

For part of one year it was Nerlens Noel.

This year it’s Time Lord, who ranks ninth in PER, and no he is not the ninth-best player in the league. Two Noel mentions in less than two paragraphs, is that a sign?

But the argument for team Thompson comes from the switchability standpoint.

Per Bbal-Index, the veteran is the much more versatile center. He guards much higher usage players. Physically he’s more nimble in the hips, stouter as a post defender, and better at not biting on those jump-shot up fakes.

Thompson vs. Williams (where Thompson excels)

  • Matchup difficulty — Thompson, by a lot
    • i.e. Thompson guards higher usage players and a wider array of players on the positional spectrum
  • Percentage of fouls on defense – -Thompson, by a lot

So, can Robert Williams close games for this team in the playoffs? I think the answer is yes.

Coming back from this latest injury, he has closed two of the past three games for the Cs

But maybe we should ask 2020 playoff pick-and-pop legend Serge Ibaka this same question.

Ibaka shot 48 percent from deep on an impressive 31 attempts against Boston during that series. Now, not all of these attempts were directly against the third-year center.

Per InStat, I went back and watched what film I could gather on this series.

Williams was on the floor for 17 of the Ibaka-based shots and directly responsible for around 10 of these looks being wide open. In drop coverage, he just seemed a step too slow, as Lowry and VanVleet made it a point to constantly attack him in this action.

Had they won, I think Ibaka’s shooting would have been a much bigger storyline, as his performance really went under the radar during this series.

In truth, Time Lord is a fantastic vertical athlete, perhaps one of the best lob catchers and shot blockers in the league.

Still, sometimes people use vertical bounce to imply all-around athleticism. Again, these types of athletes exist. It is not a “one size fits all” type of situation. In last year’s draft, Obi Toppin was an example of a fantastic vertical athlete who needs to improve his lateral mobility and overall hip flexibility to stay with smaller, shiftier matchups.

I don’t want to discredit the immense improvement for Williams, especially on the offensive side of the ball where he’s improved his assist percentage numbers from 57th percentile to 81st.

However, I still worry about his strength in the post and ability to switch onto laterally quicker players.

Thompson vs. Williams (about tied / where Time Lord excels)

  • Wins added – Williams – by a sizeable margin
  • Wins Above Replacement (impact metric – Williams by a sizable margin)
  • Defensive LEBRON (all-in-one metric) – Basically tied
  • Defensive RAPTOR (all-in-one metric) – Basically tied
  • Assisted points / 75 possession – Williams – by a lot
  • Passing Efficiency – Williams – by a lot
  • True Shooting % – Williams – by a lot
  • Rim Deterrence – Williams – by a lot
  • Block rate on contests – Williams by a lot
  • Shots Contested – Basically tied

Granted, from just watching games, Williams has improved this season when it comes to his ability not to get played off the floor.

Each year in the league, Time Lord has improved his tendency not to foul, and his off-ball recognition as a help defender seems more focused and on-point. While the metrics and myself place Time Lord over TT, the debate is closer than most Boston Celtics fans may think and I believe it is essential to understand when Thompson may present a better closing option.

So now we’ve come to micro-ball, yes that ever so used buzzword, micro-ball

This season, Brad Stevens has seemed reluctant to go the route of small-ball. This may be a leading indicator for what’s to come for the playoffs.

Revisiting last year’s postseason for a moment, when Gordon Hayward returned and was “healthy,” the Boston Celtics went to their micro-ball, hypermodern, floor spacing, playmaking, switch-heavy, whatever you want to call it, lineup.

Per, that lineup was +6.8 in a very limited sample (44 possessions). Not bad, but not enough sample.

This lineup, based on how the site tracks matchups, cataloged Tatum at the center spot. This would likely still be the case. Jaylen would shift up to the power forward, placing Fournier, Smart, and Walker as our frontcourt.

Yup, Tatum at center, a place where he’s spent literally zero percent of his regular-season time. Well, my mistake, he spent a whopping 16 possessions there.

Even Grant Williams has seen a 27 percent reduction in his time at center from year one to year two. Grant at the five spot was actually a viable solution for Boston during that Miami series.

Ojeleye, while perhaps a personal favorite, has never logged significant minutes solely at the five. While Jabari Parker has transitioned himself into a small-ball center, the sample size at the moment is just too small possession-wise to find any meaningful trends. I am not discounting this possibility just yet, it’s just difficult to come to a meaningful conclusion.

For the Boston Celtics, this year, 292 possessions they have played without a traditional center on the floor. Combining these lineups C’s are plus 0.9, putting them in the 58th percentile in terms of point differential.

This is good — not great, but good.

Sure, against a team like Charlotte, or versus Brooklyn’s Jeff Green at the center lineup, the Boston Celtics may be able to run with this concept. Still, during the regular season, Boston doesn’t have time to experiment given their tight seeding battle for a fourth or seventh spot in the East.

Again, they don’t have time and the Eastern Conference big-man landscape (aside from the Jeff Green at the five concept) does not present itself for any Boston small-ball machinations.

I came into this exercise thinking that Robert Williams was a run-away closing candidate. The numbers lean towards Time Lord, the argument for closing with Tristan Thompson against the quicker, more playmaking centric centers such as the Bam Adebayo/ Julius Randle type players may be something to consider. Against the vertical lob-Capela type bigs, Time Lord indeed.

While this train of thought led me down a rabbit hole where I was purely focused on the big man rotation, we didn’t even mention the concept of a bigger, Kemba-less, type lineup.

Again just another point to consider as we head into the postseason… or play-in tournament, but hopefully postseason.

Fingers crossed!

With the information at hand in the public sphere, I would rank the Boston Celtics closing lineups as such:

  1. The Robert Williams Experience
  2. The Tristan Thompson Sturdy Ball Grit and Grind Method
  3. The Small Ball Theory (included Fournier)
  4. Anything Else

It will be an interesting case study to see how Brad Stevens and the Celtics coaching staff might plan the various playoff-based closing lineups.

Next. 2 teams that could realistically trade for Kemba Walker. dark

Stats/References:,,,,, Nate Duncan Axiom

Numbers based on 5/6/2021 endpoint