It’s always been tempting for Doc Rivers and company to want to play small ball. They perfected the formula early on in Big Three era when James Posey was in the fold. Rivers elected to play Posey with Kevin Garnett, Paul Pierce, Ray Allen and either Rajon Rondo or Eddie House (depending on the night) down the stretch of games.
It was an incredibly dangerous lineup. Posey, at 6’8” was pivotal as a tough defender who could guard fours, stretch the floor with the 3-ball, and rebound very well for his size. The C’s had the defensive glass, (one of the usual vulnerabilities when any teams goes small) covered between him, Garnett and Pierce and they rode that lineup all the way to the title in 2008.
Five years later, like the rest of the NBA, the Celtics are still trying to find an effective undersized lineup that allows them to stretch the floor and gain advantages in specific matchups. Unlike recent years, the C’s have better personnel to go small this year, even without Rondo, as long as they are healthy otherwise. Green is a flexible player who can play multiple positions, and Brandon Bass has shown the capability of guarding smaller players on the perimeter as well.
However, all of Boston’s small lineups success have been predicated on one player being in the lineup to stabilize things on both sides of the floor and that’s Garnett. With KG out lately, the C’s have still tried to go small and those attempts, have been unwise.
First, let’s consider the facts. The C’s did play well in a couple games without KG this year, going solely small. One of these games, going small was by necessity in Phoenix with Chris Wilcox serving as the only big remaining on the bench. It’s also not a concidence Jeff Green has easily his two best games of the season in those contests when Boston looked okay going small: a win over Phoenix and a hard fought loss to Miami last week.
Green’s outbursts on those nights were tremendous, but they also covered up some flaws in the small ball lineup sans Garnett.
Reality has hit in the past two games without KG in the lineup and Green returning to his normal form. Boston has been crushed on the glass with the likes of Green and Bass playing center for the majority of the game. These guys are below average rebounders for their respective positions.
They can’t be expected to hold their own against bigger, better rebounders most nights at the center spot, against anyone. It’s not fair to them, or the team and these struggles outweigh any benefits the C’s gain from going small in other aspects of the game at these spots.
You want numbers? Feast your eyes on these:
In four games without Garnett, going with small-ball lineups for the most part, the Celtics have surrendered 13.3 offensive rebounds per game. That’s a high enough number to lead the NBA most nights (Celtics allow an average of 11.2 per game over a full season). Two extra boards a game may not seem like much, but that’s two more possessions for the opposition, and two less for a struggling offense.
Even worse, teams are taking advantage of their advantage for extra second chance points against the C’s playing with no true big man on the floor. Without KG in the lineup, the C’s are allowing a staggering 19 second chance points per game, a number that would far and away lead the NBA.
Boston is bad enough as is in this category even when KG does play, ranking 24th in the league on second chance points allowed per game. Playing with no rebounding anchor on the floor, even against other team’s smaller lineups has just brought things to an unsustainable rebounding level for Boston to win.
The thing that bugs me is that Doc Rivers has a solution to this problem. Unfortunately, that solution is collecting dust at the end of Celtics bench. (Shavlik Randolph and DJ White.) Let’s be fair here before I sing their praises. Randolph and White are flawed players. They spent time out of the NBA for a reason.
However, they are tall and potentially capable NBA players. Randolph is actually a great rebounder on both ends and White is a competent one. Both of them are better rebounders than any current member of the Celtics roster, beyond Pierce and maybe Bass.
With Garnett sidelined, Doc NEEDS to use them, but has passed on the chance the past two games, even after saying before last night’s game they would get a shot. Rivers spoke at length about this when asked about what the team needs from Wilcox in KG’s absence:
“[Wilcox] has to bring great effort every night and be consistent with it. And Shav and DJ, one or both will play as well. Maybe we’ll find something out with one of those two guys that we didn’t know heading into the playoffs. You always have to try to find a silver lining and that will be it,” Rivers said.
Despite these comments and the Knicks crushing Boston on the glass for the first couple quarters, Rivers stayed away from Randolph and White, even as Wilcox delivered another underwhelming performance.
Are White and Randolph the answers? I don’t know yet. However, Rivers needs to find out. Instead, Rivers is sticking with a formula that doesn’t work by playing Pierce/Bass/Green too many minutes in spots they can’t succeed in.
One possibility, is sliding Green over to the two spot, so the team can go big against opponents with Bradley/Green/Pierce/Bass/Randolph or White. Rivers admitted this was a possibility when I asked him about it Monday at practice.
“I can tell you that’s a lineup we will use in this stretch. If we think we have an advantage offensively at the two, we’re going to do it, because of size,” Rivers said.
Rivers stayed away from that lineup last night against a smaller Knicks team, but still got burned for it. Pierce, for one appears to be tired of it. He’s had an unhealthy burden placed on him to rebound without KG, and the team is better off with him using his energy on the offensive end.
“Hey, we just gotta figure it out. Some nights we put four smalls on the court, and that’s what it is. That’s what you saw tonight. Guys have to do a better job rebounding, roles are expanding, you know for the guys, every year you have players that sit on the bench that want to play more. Well here’s the opportunity,” Pierce said.
Now it’s up to Doc to give those guys an opportunity.
So I implore you Doc: It’s time to free Shavlik and DJ and regain control of the defensive glass…because Jeff Green is not James Posey.
The Celtics aren’t going anywhere without KG in the lineup. However, they still have the capability to hold onto the 7th seed without him. To do so, the C’s need help from everyone.