Doc Rivers was sitting at the podium Wednesday night, deep into his press conference after the Celtics escaped with a win over the Detroit Pistons when the starting lineup question came to me. The questions were coming fast and furious after another Jeff Green outburst, helping the Celtics overcome 25 offensive rebounds by the Pistons and secure the victory.
With the return of Kevin Garnett just days away, the possibility of a new-look starting lineup presented itself. Green had been playing out of his mind of late, and had arguably been the best and perhaps more importantly. the most consistent Celtic for going on a few weeks now. With the majority of that success coming with him in the starting lineup, I asked Doc a simple question.
“When KG comes back, would Green still be in the starting five?”
“Yes…it’s very possible,” Rivers replied.
Not satisfied, I probed for more information. Had Doc seen enough of it to be comfortable with Paul and Jeff at the two and three moving forward?
“I like it,” Rivers said. “I think it will be better when Kevin comes back quite honestly.”
And there’s the rub. The injury to Garnett may have opened the door to one of the most potent lineups the Celtics can roll out during the postseason, which will be a matchup nightmare for most opponents. Going big. Really big. It’s a lineup I had actually been begging (okay asking) Rivers to go to for a good amount of time.
Let’s flashback to my March 27th column entitled “Go Big or Go Home” which weighed the Celtics’ options without KG in the starting five.
One possibility, is sliding Green over to the two spot, so the team can go big against opponents with Bradley/Green/Pierce/Bass/Randolph, Wilcox 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.
Thankfully, Rivers changed his mind about it after that Knicks game, since he’s gone big ever since.
Rivers openly admits he doesn’t know who is at what position when Pierce and Green are playing the 2 and 3 alongside Avery Bradley, Brandon Bass and Garnett.
“I don’t know who’s at [shooting guard], but I’m comfortable with that lineup. We’re playing a 2, two 3s, and two 4s, if you want to really be honest. I’m comfortable with that,” Rivers said.
Definition doesn’t matter though when it comes to starting lineups anymore. As we’ve seen with the Miami Heat, if you have a group of players that work well together, however big or small they might be, it’s something worth trotting out.
Rivers has seen that in the past few weeks with his starting core. Not only has Green been playing incredibly well in the starting lineup (22.5 points per game, 56% FG, 54% from 3-point range) the team’s numbers with him, Pierce and the rest of the starting core has been spectacular.
According to NBA.com, the four-man lineup of Bradley, Green, Pierce and Bass the past seven games without Garnett has been incredible. They have posted an offensive rating of 109.9 (well above-average) and a more than respectable defensive rating of 97.8 in 124 minutes played together. Both of those figures would be top-3 in the entire NBA in their respective categories.
The even more incredible thing about this? They’ve posted those numbers together while being weighed down by Chris Wilcox at the starting center spot. Add Garnett to the equation over the replacement-level (I’m being generous) Wilcox, and there’s little doubt that four-man lineup will be a better group overall. That reality is not lost on Rivers and company.
In fact, if you look back further at the numbers, they are even more impressive. Since Rajon Rondo went down on January 27th, the four-man lineup of Green, Pierce, Bradley, and Bass have been unbelievable together, posting an offensive rating of 115.5 (which would be 1st in NBA) and a defensive rating of 97.7 in 280 minutes together.
Pierce for one, sees the possibilities with him and Green out there together at the 2 and 3.
“You have to make a decision on whether you’re going to switch or trap the ball, or if you’re going to sag off the ball,” Pierce explained. “Many teams put their best players in a pick-and-roll because of the decision you have to make. And with him becoming a better pick-and-roll player, it’s tough to make a decision, especially come playoff time when you’re trying to figure out who to put your better defenders on.”
The addition of Green to the lineup also makes life easier for Pierce on the offensive end.
“The thing is, most twos, it’s going to be difficult for them to match up with me on most nights, especially in the Eastern Conference. You’re not talking about having to guard Kobe or guys like Harden. So, other than Wade and maybe a couple other guys like Monta Ellis, who can really put the ball in the hole, I think that’s a complete nightmare for a 2-guard to have to match up to me,” Pierce said.
Doc knows those speedy guards will be an issue some games, but has a simple solution for it.
“On those nights, we can go back to the normal lineup,” Rivers said simply.
And he’s right. The Celtics have an answer on their bench in Courtney Lee, whenever they need an extra guard defender. The problem for Celtics’ opponents is that they probably don’t have an easy answer for Pierce and Green together at those positions. With Bass playing much better basketball as of late, and Bradley finding his stroke on the offensive end as well, it’s a lineup no one will want to see come playoff time. Give credit to Green though for making the lineup a reality. He’s earned it, as Doc explained at practice yesterday.
“I wasn’t going to give it to him. Starters have to be more consistent. Bench players are inconsistent guys who have gone up and down. Jeff has earned that, and I’m really happy, because he makes everyone better,” Rivers said.
Now the Celtics wait anxiously for Garnett to return and see the big five-man lineup in action. The Bradley/Green/Pierce/Bass/Garnett lineup has only played 13 minutes together this year, since Rivers had wanted to stay away from it until Green came into his own.
“Early in the season it was bad,” said Rivers. “We started camp with that lineup and it wasn’t very good. It was more (a issue) in the defensive end, but even in the offensive end when they would both run into the post. It just took time. Jeff needed to get more comfortable. I didn’t want to throw him into the same spot as when he first got here, where we were trying to throw him at the 3 and the 4 at the same time. Now we’re saying 2, 3 and 4. We made a conscious effort to stay away from that lineup until we thought Jeff was right.”
He’s right now though…and everything about the Celtics will be better for it. Is the perfect solution for finding the group that can hold their own both offensively and defensively down the stretch of playoff games?
We don’t know yet, but all signs are pointing to it being a distinct possibility.