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Celtics lineups: think duos and trios, not starting fives

Doc Rivers announced on Wednesday that he's considering using several "transitional" starting lineups as he experiments with his roster. He may not know who the opening five will be, but training camp and the preseason have shown him what players work well together.

Debby Wong-US PRESSWIRE - Presswire

Doc was always fond of saying that no team had beat his Celtics when their starting five of Rondo, Allen, Pierce, Garnett, and Perkins was intact. For the three years when those guys played together and even the two without Perk, Danny tried to surround his all-stars with role players that could fill in here and there. Guys like Tony Allen, Glen Davis, James Posey, P.J. Brown, Rasheed Wallace, Shaquille O'Neal, and Jermaine O'Neal weren't here to be big difference makers. The team was always going to go as far as the Big Five took them.

Those days are gone now. These aren't your father's Boston Celtics anymore, or at least your-older-brother-who-left-for-college's Boston Celtics anymore. Danny maintained last year's starting five, but he also added a talented group of veterans, rookies, and young players that could all be starting for other teams. It's an unprecedented roster that Rondo calls it "the most talent we've had since I've been here as a Celtic." But with all these riches comes its inherent problems. Sure, they're rich man's problems, but problems nonetheless and problems I'm sure Doc loves tackling.

The way I look at it, it's not a question of 1+1+1+1+1 equaling a starting 5. It's some combination of 2+3's. There are very few redundancies on this squad, everybody brings something different to the table, and some people's talents bring out the best in others. In two weeks of training camp and two games in Europe, there are a bunch of combos we know that work:

Rondo-Pierce-Garnett You don't mess with a good thing and as long as the The Big Three are intact, they're going to see time together on the floor. Next year or maybe even the year after, you might see The Captain or The Big Ticket relegated to coming off the bench, but there's always going to be magic between these three guys:

Rajon Rondo sick pass to Paul Pierce Heat-Celtics Game 4 (via 1jzo)

Rondo amazing pass to Garnett vs Hawks - Game 4 PlayOffs - Round 1 (via BostonCelticsLIVE)

They're identical plays that only teammates that have been together for years can pull off. They don't even need that subtle eye contact or head nod to initiate that play. It's all instinct and just knowing where each other is going to be at all times.

Lee/Bradley-Green-Milicic What we learned in Europe is that Green's first step is going to be a weapon this season. Forgetting that he's a Laker, Mike Gorman and Brian Scalabrine continuously compared him to James Worthy. He was quic going to the basket and smooth finishing with a soft touch. Against Fenerbahce, he had a stretch of six minutes where a big would set a high pick for him at the key and more times than not, he'd use it to drive to the rim. Guys like Green make the game very simple because they don't need an elaborate set of screens or misdirection to free them up for a shot.

Jeff Green highlights vs Fenerbahce (08.06.12) (via roldddddd)

In Turkey, it was Fab Melo separating Green from his defender, but he'll have a tough time doing that from Maine. Doc has raved about Darko's ability as a pick setter, so he's a perfect pick-and-roll partner with Green. I'll throw Courtney Lee into this trio because it's important to have a shooter roaming the perimeter in pick-and-roll situations in order to create space. Lee is one of the most feared corner pocket threats in the league so if his man decides to help off the pick, Green will have the option to kick it out to Lee for the open jumper. Defensively, Lee and Green are two of our most athletic defenders and with the seven-foot Serbian behind them, they'll have more freedom to press their man knowing that the threat of a shot blocker looms in the paint.

Garnett-Milicic Two weeks ago, the idea of Darko starting alongside Garnett was foreign, but after their trip overseas, that twin tower duo could prove to be our best defense against the few teams in the league that can throw out two seven-footers on the floor at the same time. It's a problem that Doc won't really have to address until we play the Lakers, but I could see him experimenting with it against teams like the Knicks and maybe the Sixers.

Pierce-Green Doc hinted at this duo today after practice with them playing the 2 and 3 spots on the floor in order to create mismatches:

Green and Pierce Could Team on Wing

"There's teams with big guards; that works defensively and offensively," Rivers said of the lineup. "There's teams with a small guard but not a great shooting guard; then we can definitely do that because now that gives us an offensive advantage."

Doc says it's not something they might use against Miami where Pierce and Green would have to chase Wade and Ray off of screens, but I like the idea of using their size and speed against bigger lineups. For example, think how well they could match up against Kobe and Artest.

Rondo-Pierce-Terry Playmakers' delight. Back when The Jet was in Dallas, Rick Carlisle employed a flow offense where players could freelance more rather than run set plays. That's the added benefit of having JT in green rather than #20. Terry may not be able to spot up and shoot as well as Ray did, but he's infinitely better at putting the ball on the ground and creating for everybody else. Picture Rondo breaking down a defense, kicking out as the opposing team tries to collapse on him, Pierce and Terry reading the rotation and reacting, and moving the ball as the D crumples in front of them. Pair these three up with any two players (preferably bigs that can shoot like Bass and KG) and you've got a pretty potent offense.

Milicic-Green-Lee/Bradley One of the bright spots against Milan was Darko's passing out of the high post. I was watching NBATV's coverage of Celtics' live practice this morning and they got a pretty good sound bite of PP talking about how well Darko is at the free throw line extended. He was talking to Jamar Smith and Dionte Christmas and telling them that they should use him more often when he sets that high in the paint. As Pierce points out, he's not just a big guy; he's "smart," too. In Italy, he frequently had his back to the basket and found cutters going back door or flaring out for open J's. Darko is going to be the focal point of that triangle offense-esque when he's on the floor.

Rondo-Lee/Bradley-Green Speed kills. Before training camp opened up, Doc put an emphasis on easier transition buckets this season and we're seeing it play out in the preseason. In the opening quarters in Istanbul and Milan, Rondo really pushed the tempo, but a lot of his playing time was with the older vets. Pierce finished on a couple of fast breaks, but he was usually the trailer and not out front of the defense. If Doc puts PP and Garnett on the 5-5-5 plan, expect to see Rondo running with the young bucks more. When the other teams are exhausted and gasping for air, Doc will have a stable of thoroughbreds to run it down their throats. And when Chris Wilcox's back and conditioning are in better shape, throw him in with the thundering herd. He's a rebounding big that can grab the board on one end and finish with a dunk on the other.

Rondo's Nice Assist (via NBA)

Bass-Rondo-Terry When asked about the possibility of losing his starting spot as power forward, Brandon Bass bristled a little bit and offered no comment other than "we have to get better as a team and I think Doc will make the best decision for the team." Bass has become the forgotten man in training camp with everybody fawning over the new toys (Sullinger, Darko) but let's not forget that BB is the best pick-and-pop player on the roster. In every win against the Sixers, Philly continuously gave up Bass' mid-range jumper and he killed them with it. He's going to be the security blanket for ball handers like Rondo and Terry when teams cheat off the screens and double them.

Garnett-Sullinger When the idea of Sullinger starting first came up, I wrote:

Terry & Sullinger playing with Big Three: Doc suggests possibility of several starting lineups

This is Doc at his best. He understands that for Sullinger to utilize his skills as an offensive rebounder, it's best to play him opposite a player that will command double teams. Whether he actually unseats Brandon Bass in the starting lineup (doubtful) or playing with KG becomes a natural genesis of the 5-5-5 plan, you're going to see this often in the regular season: Garnett getting the ball at the high block, Sullinger's defender shading towards him, and Sullinger cutting along the baseline for a quick hitter at the rim.

It's a smart way to introduce the rookie to the NBA: surround him with veterans that can hide his deficiencies while he develops and put him in the best position to succeed. It's the most fitting example of this whole duo/trio theory where you try and surround players with their best complements. Sullinger's skill set is the perfect extension of what Garnett does best. With Garnett opening up the paint with his shooting and passing ability, Jared is free to root around the paint for dump offs and easy buckets.


Ultimately, my biggest question right now is that with all the options afforded to Doc Rivers, how is he going to attack certain lineups? For example, against Miami, will he match the Heat's athleticism and speed around the perimeter or go big? If we meet the Lakers in the Finals, will we try and outrun them with a smaller lineup or go toe-to-toe with them in the paint? In the past, he didn't have the variety of players that he does today. On the offense end, if things weren't working, the Celtics would have to rely on their defense to get them by. Thankfully, all the new guys are better than average defenders and have bought into the schemes, so it's just a matter of figuring out how to use them on the offensive end and what's great about these guys is that they don't care who starts. It's all about the team, the team, the team.

Frankly, I think Doc's a little overwhelmed with all the weapons at his disposal. He's always been regarded as one of the best X's and O's coaches in the league, but this isn't tic-tac-toe anymore. There's been so much talk about who's starting and who's closing, but the bigger question is how is this team going to win? I think their identity will always be made on the defensive end, but we still don't know how they're going to score the ball. It's going to be interesting over the next six games in eight nights (I THOUGHT WE WERE DONE WITH THE LOCKOUT SCHEDULE?!?!). In Europe, it didn't seem like they were running their "stuff." The games felt like an extension of the UCLA workouts that Rondo put together where guys were just getting used to each other. Are the Celtics a pick-and-roll team? Are they a transition team? Are they still a jump-shooting team? Or are they all of the above? I can't wait to find out.