When Kendrick Perkins was traded last season, the hole that his departure left was more representative than literal. The almighty starting five that had never lost a playoff series was gone forever, undefeated record intact. But as valuable as Perkins was, his stature in Boston wasn’t that of a culture changing future Hall of Famer.
When Ray Allen was moved to the bench in favor of the ever-blazing Avery Bradley last week, something more significant than a simple basketball scheme happened. It was the second monumental move signifying a natural transition from the Big 3 to the franchise’s next phase of competitive play. Since 2008, Boston’s trademark of excellence has been Paul Pierce, Ray Allen, and Kevin Garnett opening and closing each game. On a pure level of sentimentality, to have one of them (ironically, their most durable) be relegated to the bench is sad. However, when we begin to speak in terms of tactics and strategy, so far this move has been fantastic.
About a week ago, our Hayes Davenport presented a wonderful case as to why the Celtics should be starting Avery Bradley in every game moving forward. The team listened, and right now the sun couldn’t be shining any brighter. Both Bradley and Allen look comfortable in their new roles, and the defense is playing at a historically brilliant level, giving up a league best .948 points per possession and 28.4% shooting from beyond the arc in their last five games.
But what might be the most important and overlooked aspect of the move is how it’s allowed considerable lineup flexibility. Doc Rivers now has the ability to create different groups that the once solidified starting five had either prevented, or made difficult to see. One in particular has been nothing short of dominant.
On paper, it makes absolute sense for a unit of Bradley, Allen, Sasha Pavlovic, Garnett, and Greg Stiemsma to be an absolute torture rack. They have five individual defenders who range from solid to phenomenal, five guys who can knock down a shot, two Hall of Famers, and two guys who can create their own shot if a play breaks down. In 29 minutes together, this group is scoring 1.28 PPP while allowing an inconceivable 0.61 PPP. Wow.
Here’s an offensive shot performance chart courtesy of NBA.com.
And now one that details how this unit is doing defensively.
Last Saturday against the Pacers, the Celtics broke out this lineup at the beginning of the second quarter for the first time this season. They played the first 5:36 and finished with a +10. They then started the fourth quarter, played 4:40, and finished +4. Then on Sunday against the Sixers, the Celtics again started the second quarter with this lineup. They played together for 6:46 and were a +13. Then in the fourth quarter they played 4:45 and finished with a +6. That’s a +33 playing just under a half of basketball together. (As if it couldn’t get any better, Mickael Pietrus‘ probable replacement of Pavlovic makes this unit even more fierce and resourceful on both ends of the court.) Two night ago, against the Miami Heat, Doc Rivers went to this group to start the second quarter and they managed to stretch an 11 point lead to 16.
I’ll admit this sample size is microscopic, and it’s impossible for the numbers to stay as great as they’ve been, but looking at from larger point of view, I can’t think of one reason why this group wouldn’t see success for the rest of the season. On both ends of the court, they match up well with almost every team in the league, and every group that will matter once the playoffs begin. What this also does is allow Rajon Rondo and Pierce to get crucial rest without fear of the opposition taking advantage of the team’s two best players sitting on the sideline.
This is why Ray Allen’s relegation to the bench isn’t just about the secondary unit getting a scorer’s punch. So far it’s been much deeper than that, with several waves reverberating throughout the team. Before, a unit like the one I’ve detailed above would either have Brandon Bass on the court instead of Garnett, Keyon Dooling on the court instead of Allen, or Rondo on the court instead of Bradley. The Celtics have key players in the back ends of their career, yes, but classifying them as an “old” group right now may not be accurate. Three members of their starting lineup are 26, 25, and 21-years-old—either in the prime of their careers or have yet to enter it—and the bench’s main contributors aren’t exactly ancient. Pavlovic is 28, Stiemsma is 26, and Pietrus is 29.
Bradley’s elasticity as someone who can play big minutes at either guard position has allowed the coaching staff to get incredibly creative with creating mismatches against opposing second units, and it’s helped make the Celtics something they haven’t been since Dwyane Wade broke Rondo’s arm: a championship contender.