Brad Stevens isn't going to panic even though the Boston Celtics are down 2-0 to the Cleveland Cavaliers, but drastic times call for drastic measures, and he should consider making a change to starting lineup. Playoff success is largely based on game-to-game adjustments and the demotion of Brandon Bass could help the team significantly.
Bass is the unsung hero of the Celtics after another productive season, but against the Cavaliers he has been a zero on offense and the boards, and the team defense has not been as productive with him on the floor. Benching Bass would be the total opposite of a panic move -- it'd be a savvy, calculated decision.
Boston has less spacing with Bass in the game
With Bass on the bench the Celtics are desirably attempting over half of their shots inside the restricted area and the paint, compared to just one third when he's active. That's because Bass doesn't provide the same level of spacing as Kelly Olynyk, Jared Sullinger, and Jonas Jerebko, so they end up settling for mid-range jumpers.
Here, the Celtics run a side pick-and-roll between Isaiah Thomas and Tyler Zeller, which forces Jerebko's defender to the nail (the center of the free throw line) to stop penetration. Since Jerebko is a productive shooter from downtown, James Jones has to scurry back, which gives him the space to drive the closeout for the athletic layup.
When Bass is on the floor, it's more likely he'd be standing in the corner, but he hasn't proven to be a threat from there, so the Cavaliers are willingly helping off him. The Celtics should prefer Jae Crowder occupying that space, even though he hasn't been a productive corner-three shooter this season.
But Crowder is usually defended by LeBron James, who has been poor defending off-ball by displaying more interest in conserving energy than collapsing into the paint.
On this play James just stands and watches as Thomas squeaks by Kevin Love for a sensational layup. With Bass in the corner, his defender would be more likely to help and prevent the shot from ever occurring. It's not that Bass is a bad three-point shooter from the corner, because he isn't, it's that Cleveland's defense rotates much more effectively with him in the game.
Here's an example of Boston's tight spacing with Bass. Tyler Zeller should've had an open dunk off the roll, but Bass is hovering around the baseline, which allows his man to rotate over and swat Zeller's dunk attempt away. This isn't all Bass' fault, but it's a visualization of why Boston wants to spread the floor as much as possible. It's also why they've tried incorporating the corner-three into Bass' skill-set in the first place.
The Celtics are much more threatening offensively with a three-point shooting big on the floor. Cleveland has been blitzing Thomas pick-and-rolls, but this makes them prone to the screener or off-ball shooters, depending on their rotations. On this play Olynyk's man swings over to help prevent Thomas from penetrating the lane, but that opens up KO for an easy spot up three.
With Bass, there is no risk of an above the break three. All the Cavaliers have to worry about is him taking a mid-range jumper or driving it to the rim, but he has had no success in doing that this series. Every inch matters in basketball, and the extra feet Boston's stretch bigs are making Cleveland's bigs cover is making all the difference, so it would be beneficial for them to utilize it more frequently.
Bass is allowing too many inside shots
Bass has been a good individual defender on Kevin Love, holding him to 1-of-6 shooting, but his pick-and-roll defense has been shoddy. With Bass on the floor the Cavaliers are attempting a monstrous 36 percent of their shots in the restricted area, and they're hitting at 85.2 percent.
Vantage Sports data also states that Bass is getting blown by. He ranks as the worst Celtics big man in both Keep-in-Front% and Opponent Inside Shot%, which both measure a players' ability to contain a ball handler. Zeller ranked as one of the NBA's most fundamental big men this season, with an 83.19 Keep-in-Front%, and both Sullinger and Olynyk were around the league average.
Statistical analysis doesn't suggest that Cleveland's lineups have to do with Bass' struggles or Zeller's success; it is merely a matter of technique.
Olynyk's fundamentals have improved significantly this season, as demonstrated by the clip above. Olynyk drops to the paint, with the hopes of forcing Irving into a mid-range jumper, but he gets attacked anyway. Fortunately, Olynyk stays on the balls of his feet, which allows him to spring backwards to properly contest Irving's layup.
The same can't be said on the Bass play. He doesn't drop enough and he's on his heels, which both make him susceptible to the drive. Irving expectedly blows by him for the layup. This isn't the type of defense you expect from a veteran, but it's precisely what the Celtics are receiving this series.
Bass isn't rebounding well
The Celtics are by far at their worst as a defensive unit with Bass active, with a minus-24.6 Net Rating, but they are only minus-1 with him on the bench. One of the reasons why is because Cleveland is absolutely shredding Boston on the boards anytime Bass is on the floor.
Tristan Thompson, Timofey Mozgov, and Kevin Love will give any frontcourt trouble, but Bass has never been a good rebounder, so it's unsurprising that he is struggling against one of the best units in the NBA. With a 40.3 REB%, the Celtics have been brutalized with Bass trying to box out Cleveland's beast rebounders. That's why Sullinger is receiving so much playing time. He's not all the way back with his conditioning, but he is still the best rebounder on the team.
Stevens needs to shuffle the pairings
After Wednesday's practice Celtics head coach Brad Stevens hinted that there could be changes to the starting lineup. Considering the film study and statistical analysis demonstrated above, it's possible the Celtics have come to similar conclusions. But the real question is whether or not a change will be made.
Stevens should start Kelly Olynyk at power forward. This would provide superior spacing and make Kevin Love work on the defensive end, and effectively take him out of the paint to generate more offensive rebounding chances. The Celtics have high OREB% with Olynyk and Jared Sullinger on the floor, not because of their own ability, but because of the wider floor they create.
Sullinger should remain on the bench and be matched up against Tristan Thompson anytime he's in the game. It's most likely that Sullinger would substitute in for Zeller, creating a pairing of Olynyk and Sullinger, which Stevens has utilized frequently.
When Thompson is on the floor at the same time as Sullinger, he averages 5.3 fewer rebounds per 48 minutes. In fact, the Cavaliers as a team have a minus-3.5 Net Rating when both Thompson and Sullinger are battling.
Jonas Jerebko has been dealing with a calf injury, according to MassLive's Jay King, which Stevens said is the reason he didn't play in the first half of Game 2. But Jerebko should play on Thursday and Sunday if he's healthy, and it would benefit the Celtics if he moves ahead of Bass on the depth chart because of the spacing he provides.
Stevens might not be willing to cut Bass out of the rotation entirely, but he came close to doing that in Game 2 by playing him only four minutes in the second half. If Jerebko shines during his stint in the first half of Game 3, Stevens should consider benching Bass for the remainder of the game.
Bass does bring value as a LeBron stopper and as a switcher in the pick-and-roll, but Jae Crowder and Evan Turner have also done a good job of containing James.
There are other changes that could come to the starting lineup, like the insertion of Crowder or Thomas, but the majority of the team's issues center around the frontcourt pairings. Brandon Bass has done a lot of good this season, but it's time for Brad Stevens to make a power move that could bring his young and gritty Boston Celtics roster back into the fight against the talented and vulnerable Cleveland Cavaliers.