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Small-ball was the solution for Boston Celtics in 84-80 win over Philadelphia 76ers

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Boston's small-ball lineup ended the game on a 16-3 run.

Bob DeChiara-USA TODAY Sports

Trailing the winless 76ers, 77-68, with 6 minutes to go, Brad Stevens changed the complexion of the game by using a small-ball lineup. A squad of Isaiah Thomas, Evan Turner, Avery Bradley, Jae Crowder, and Jared Sullinger then roasted the Sixers with a ferocious 16-3 run, to seize an 84-80 win for the Celtics.

Stevens said the decision to go small occurred at halftime, when he started Turner over Crowder in the third quarter, knowing he'd bring Crowder off the bench as a 4.

"It was one of those decisions where I thought we would play small late," Stevens said. "Because they killed us when they went small, I thought, for most of the game."

The small-ball 76ers slaughtered the Celtics like turkeys on Thanksgiving, with an absurd +37.3 Net Rating in 26 minutes. But when both Jahlil Okafor and Nerlens Noel were on the floor, the results favored the Celtics, as the Sixers had a -37.5 Net Rating.

76ers Lineup and Statistics vs. Celtics Minutes Offensive Rating Defensive Rating Net Rating
Small-Ball: Jahlil Okafor OR Nerlens Noel 26 97.1 59.8 +37.3
Two Bigs: Jahlil Okafor AND Nerlens Noel 22 64.1 101.6 -37.5

The Celtics exploited the Okafor-Noel combo to close the game, since Okafor struggles to defend perimeter players, and Noel's better suited patrolling the paint. But prior to the final 6 minutes, Boston played small for 7 total minutes. And it was only small spurts of action, which likely didn't allow players to develop a rhythm as a collective unit. The closing lineup got an extended run, and it ultimately won them the game.

Thomas took advantage of Boston's increased spacing by penetrating with ease, which led to 6 points and 2 assists -- he finished with 30 and 6. After the game, Thomas was asked about how playing small helps him operate offensively.

"It gives me a lot of space to create. It helps me out a lot," Thomas said. "As long as we're doing our job on the defensive end, I think Coach likes that lineup where we do go small because it makes teams adjust to us."

As previously covered, the Celtics are statistically a superior team when they go small. It's not something that can be done all the time, but when used at the right moments it can make the game strenuous on both ends of the court for the opponent.

In terms of playing time, one potential issue with going small more often, though, is that it diminishes the roles of traditional big men like David Lee and Tyler Zeller. Stevens said the team has had "some real conversations," and that they need to be "more connected," and "find great passion for each other on every given day."

Thomas shed some light on Stevens' comments: "Basically, [Stevens' message is] do your job. Whatever your job is, do it at a high level. No complaining. He knows everybody wants to play. It's a hard and tough decision for him. But if you're about this team, you're just gonna do whatever for the team."

As Thomas alluded to, obviously everyone wants to play. That goes without saying. You want guys that hope to be impact players on winning teams. Maybe guys are frustrated. But some nights your name will be called. Other nights it won't be.

The 8-7 record is underwhelming, but the top 5 Defensive Rating and top 10 Net Rating are promising. They're going through some bumps in the road right now, but the signs are there that this team can win a lot of games. That could mean in the future going exclusively small against teams like the Sixers, and utilizing the big man depth against more traditional opponents.