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Do the Celtics Have a Problem with Small Lineups?

 

Picture 21One the enduring conclusions of the Bulls-Celtics epic first-round series was that the Bulls four-guard line-up killed Boston and exposed a potential weakness in the team. Quoth Simmons on the Rasheed Wallace signing: 

Considering the Celtics had trouble with everyone who went small against them last season, weren’t they better off targeting a third swing guy who could make 3s and defend hot scorers (and please don’t tell me Marquis Daniels is the answer) over frontcourt insurance?

I was as guilty of this as anyone, as I wrote about how the Bulls small line-up forced Doc Rivers to replace a big starter with either Tony Allen (an offensive non-factor) or Eddie House (a defensive liability). When he choose Allen, it seemed, the results were disastrous; this was especially so during the last 2:08 of Game 6, in which the Bulls outscored Boston by four points to force overtime. Allen, at his disorganized worst, missed two shots in that span. 

Vinny Del Negro certainly believed the small line-up was working, as he used it with greater frequency in games six and seven. The only writer/expert I saw who disagreed with this near-conventional wisdom was Kelly Dwyer, who wrote this of Game 7 on Ball Don’t Lie:

Chicago could not put itself in a position to win in the second half of this game because Vinny Del Negro ran with a four guard lineup that could not set a screen to save its life on offense (because, newsflash, 6-2 guards aren’t really great at setting screens on 6-7 forwards), and was consistently dominated in the paint on defense.

So who’s right? Did the Celtics really have a problem guarding small line-ups? And is Marquis Daniels a solution? 

I’m not going to pretend to have a definitive answer to this question, but I went through the full Bulls-Celtics series on Popcorn Machine and tracked the net plus/minus for every segment of the seven games in which Chicago used some variation of a small line-up—almost always Brad Miller or Joakim Noah with John Salmons, Derrick Rose, Kirk Hinrich and Ben Gordon. 

In all, Coach Vinny played this line-up for 72:53 seconds of the series–about 10 minutes per game, with a gradual escalation as the series went on. 

The Bulls total plus/minus for those 72:53: minus 7.

This would seem to validate Dwyer’s side in the argument. But things are slightly more complicated. The Celtics outscored the Bulls small line-up by nine points in the fourth quarter of Game 3—garbage time during a blowout. The Bulls also had a small line-up on the court for the waning seconds of Game 7, when the C’s made clinching free throws to put the game out of reach. 

Remove those two segments and the Bulls smalls were plus 7 for the series. 

So is Simmons right? And if so, was it all Tony Allen’s fault? And is Marquis Daniels the solution? Some thoughts, after the jump.

Focusing only on the Chicago series, the only conclusion is that it is really difficult—and probably not accurate—to make a definitive proclamation about the Celtics play against Chicago’s smalls. Or even about small line-ups that included Tony Allen. 

The Bulls small line-ups only made a real positive impact (for Chicago) on three occasions: 1) The last 3:34 of  regulation Game 6, in which they erased an eight-point Boston lead to force overtime (i.e. the Tony Allen stretch);  2) A five-minute stretch in the 2nd quarter of Game 5 in which a four-guard line-up outscored Boston’s starters by seven points; and 3) A two-minute stretch of the fourth quarter in Game 4, in which the Bulls made up a quick five points against Boston’s starters. 

Note that two of those runs came against Boston’s starting line-up. And though fans (including me) heaped the blame on Tony Allen for Chicago’s huge end-of-regulation 10-2 run in Game 6, note that the first half of that run came against the Celtics starting line-up. Tony Allen only came on for the second chunk of the run—the part where, unfortunately for him, the spotlight is harshest. 

Indeed, a look through the game flow of that entire series shows that the Celtics starting line-up had the most consistent trouble with Chicago’s four-guard attack, though I would caution strongly against reading too much into that. The starters naturally were on the court together the longest, and as such had the most opportunity to fail against the smalls. 

But they failed much more often than they succeeded. Game 4 was typical in that regard. As I mentioned above, the Bulls went on a quick five-point blitz late in the fourth quarter to rally and tie the game against Boston’s starting five. They started overtime with the same line-up, only to have Boston go on a five-point mini-spurt. 

What changed? The Celtics replaced Perkins with Brian Scalabrine. The same thing happened in the third quarter of Game 7; the Bulls used a four-guard team to outscore the starters by five points over about 4:50 early in the quarter. Doc replaced Perk with Scalabrine, and the C’s won the next five minutes by three points. 

Again, I’d caution about reading too much into this, because you can find a counter for anything. In the overtime of Game 5, for instance, the C’s held even with Chicago’s smalls for the first 4:36 of the period with a line-up that consisted of four starters and Tony Freaking Allen in place of Ray Allen, who had fouled out. So it’s very, very premature to say that Boston struggles against smalls with Perk on the floor. 

In that same vein: The C’s were 17-8 against teams that played a fast pace last season, worse than they fared against teams playing at an average pace (20-6) or slow teams (25-6). Still: 17-8 is pretty damn good. I’d stay away from saying the C’s have a problem with fast-paced teams. Of course, fast paced teams and small line-ups aren’t precisely the same things. I suppose it’s possible to do well against one and not the other.

A word about Tony Allen: The Boston side of the small lineup discussion focused a lot on the TA-House debate and Allen’s failures, especially in the most crucial moments of Game 6. But Tony Allen actually played very few minutes as part of a true small line-up, according to 82games playoff stats

Instead, what stands out about Tony Allen’s playoff numbers is how abysmally the team played with him on the floor—no matter the construction of the line-up around him. Tony Allen played 60 minutes in the playoffs this season, and in those 60 minutes, opponents outscored the Celtics by 53 points. Read that sentence again. Fifty-three points in 60 minutes. That’s….that’s just really hard to do or even comprehend. 

There is some discussion going on now about whom Marquis Daniels will back up next season—Pierce or Rondo. I actually think the question is sort of moot (he’ll back up both), but the fact remains: Anytime Daniels is on the court instead of Tony Allen, the Celtics will benefit—at least if we’re talking about the TA of the 2009 post-season. (And yes, I know he was shaking off the rust from a thumb injury).

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  • twalter

    I think the small lineup problem is small. Cavs and Magic can't play small for prolonged periods. Both have good small ball options, but I think the Celtics have enough tools to counter act them for the small spurts they will face.

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  • Tony

    I think the Celtics tend to have more of a problem with young or athletic lineups more so then small. Let's face it the vets are not as young as they used to be and tend to pace themselves.

  • HI

    true enough john, these celtics are a motherfucking disgrace to the league

    they arent even contenders, watch the hawks, cavs, wizards, magic, bulls, raptors all finish ahead of them

    celtics suck son

  • urbeltic

    There may be an issue with small ball/wild cat offense, but viewed in context of a full game … it probably is only minor thing. That’s because most teams will have their own trouble with the Celts line-up, especially when Sheed is playing and stretching things out. I think the real way to solve the small ball problem is to be better coached and prepared for it rather than relying on personnel.

  • John (Lakersland)

    Wait wait wait… you claim to be “The Team to Beat” and you’re worried about teams going small on you? ROFL. Are you serious? I would FARKING LOVE for teams to try going small on the Lakers (although, admittedly, that may be the only chance of beating them…) I know the Spurs plan on it (McDyess is expected to play Center at times.)

    My point being, if YOU are the team that’s concerned about matchups, you are NOT the favorites.

    Please try again.

  • John

    I think this was a repercussion of not having KG. he has the mobility, size and defense to dominate small ball lineups (just try to drive past a guard and then through him). Without him they are probably a little more susceptible. Hence sheed will help also (if he is motivated), mainly if KG gets injured.

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  • Pork Fried Rice

    This Bulls series is kind of a bad example isnt it? because the team was riddled with injuries (esp. KG's), meaning guys had trouble running let alone chasing down quick guards. Perk and Big Baby are slower than the average of centers anyway. Dont forget this year there's also Sheed besides KG, with the length and mobility to block or challenge penetration.

    Overall I think it will just fall back to the norm, that is small line ups are only meant for quick bites, and if used over long hauls, they will get dominated.

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