Tuesday, November 4, 2014

Celtics Going Small

The first question that Brad Stevens was asked in the post-game scrum was what he told his players at halftime that would explain the remarkable run they went on. After losing the first half by 26 points, the Celtics mounted a furious comeback and had several shots to tie the game in the final minute, eventually losing by 5. Stevens smiled and shook his head. A big half-time speech isn't going to move the needle in the NBA.

A coach isn't thinking what he's going to say to the guys on the floor - he's trying to figure out what guys he should put on the floor. A line-up adjustment is the best way for a coach to put his fingerprints on a game and that's exactly what Stevens did on Monday, when he took out one of his big men and played small, with 4 perimeter players and 3 PG's in the game. It's a line-up that could pay dividends going forward.

The Celtics closed out the game with Jared Sullinger, Jeff Green, Marcus Smart, Avery Bradley and Rajon Rondo on the floor. "It wasn't so much the three guards as the four guards," Stevens said afterwards. "We were playing really small. We had an all 6'8 and under team out there for awhile. We defended with purpose, got into the ball and played more into our identity. We made them uncomfortable."

Changing the line-up had a domino effect on the entire game. In the first half, the Mavs made absolute hay out of attacking the Celtics two big man sets, running pick-and-rolls at Sullinger and Kelly Olynyk and creating wide-open shots almost every time down the floor. Dallas got whatever they wanted - one big man couldn't move his feet at the point of attack and the other couldn't move his feet as the second line of defense.

In the modern NBA, the first question that every team must answer is whether they are a 4-out or a 2-in team. As a rule, a team that goes small is increasing their floor spacing and team speed in order to be more effective on the offensive end of the floor. The Memphis Grizzlies are the archetypal example of a team that stays big - they want to control tempo, grind you out in the half-court and suffocate you on defense.

The whole point of playing two big men together is to improve your defense and match-up with bigger teams. So if the Celtics can't find a two-man combination out of Olynyk, Sullinger, Brandon Bass and Tyler Zeller that can play good defense, there's really no point in them not going small. "We had a hard time guarding Dirk [when we went small]," Stevens said, "but we had a hard time guarding Dirk anyway."

With Green at the 4, Boston becomes a much faster team and they have a much easier time leveraging the strength of their team - the perimeter defense of Bradley, Rondo & Smart. That should be a law firm because those three can straight up lock down other teams. Stevens must have said "get into the ball" 5x in his press conference afterward. The three of those guys combined to force 6 steals from the Mavs guards.

Smart, in particular, was very impressive, as he can slide between all three perimeter positions on defense. That's what makes him so intriguing from a line-up perspective - at 6'4 220 with a 6'8 wingspan, he can be the fastest SF in the league or the biggest PG. Line-ups with Smart in them can do a lot of switching and blitzing, as he has the size and toughness to defend guys much bigger than him in a 1-on-1 scenario.

He stuffed the stat-sheet in his first game back in his home-town - 7 points, 6 assists, 3 rebounds, 1 steal and 1 block - and did it with a lot of flair too.

The one thing he will have to avoid is flopping, as he came into the league with a bit of a reputation and ones as egregious as this aren't going to win him many friends in the officiating ranks. He might need to be fined for this, really:

I do love that he tried to sell the ref on it afterwards, though. There's no shame in his game.

Smart at the 3 moves Green at the 4, which is another plus for this line-up, as most combo forwards are more effective using their speed on PF's than using their size on SF's. The Mavs had no answer for him, either, as he went for 35 points, 7 rebounds and 2 assists on 14-28 shooting. He makes good money, but I bet he looks at Chandler Parsons and thinks, this guy is making $15 million dollars? Let me holler at some of that.

* Not saying that Green is better than Chandler. Just that, from his POV, since he can win the 1-on-1 match-up, how can that other guy be better than me?

Going small also benefits Jared Sullinger, who is still trying to figure out who he is in the NBA. He is trying to prove he is a three-point shooter, which is fine, but you don't want him abandoning what got him in the league in the first place. He has a big ole butt, soft hands and good footwork around the basket - that's where he worries other teams. While Sullinger went 0-2 from 3 against Dallas, he snagged 7 offensive rebounds.

Even if they play their 7'0, they are still going to be at a huge disadvantage in the paint, as Dwight Howard and Terrence Jones proved on Saturday. They might as well go small and take advantage of the strengths that are on their roster and live with the fact that they will have to concede some points from some of the bigger front-lines in the NBA. Either way, it's going to be a matter of what Stevens wants to give up.

One of the reasons you can't jump to any big conclusions in the first week of the season is that coaches are still trying to find their team's best line-ups. It's all about experimenting, throwing different groups on the floor and seeing what sticks. Brad Stevens may have found something against the Mavs tonight. Rondo, Bradley, Smart, Green and Sullinger are his five best players. Might as well play them all at once.

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