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Diving deep into the Boston Celtics small ball revolution

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The Celtics have recently used small ball lineups more frequently and the defense has regressed (as covered by Bill Sy). Danny Ainge spoke to 98.5 The Sports Hub's Toucher and Rich about this trend.

"We've been playing smaller to get more offense and our defense has slipped," Ainge said to T&R. "But again, these last two games in particular haven't been as bad. It's just a great offense. [DeMar] DeRozan was terrific last night and Luis Scola was knocking down threes. It was just a really good performance by Toronto's offense, more than it was our bad defense."

Ainge's point about the opponents is accurate. DeRozan and Scola were red-hot. It happens. You can only control so much on defense.

But the defense has stumbled. Here's a snippet of my article from

Over a recent seven-game stretch since Avery Bradley returned from injury, per NBA Wowy, the Celtics have a 111.9 offensive rating and 112.6 defensive rating in 182 minutes with small ball lineups.

However, with traditional lineups, they have a 109.8 offensive rating and 107.5 defensive rating in 159 minutes.

After a deeper look at the data, since Bradley returned, I found small ball lineups have excelled with Amir Johnson on the floor, they've been average with Kelly Olynyk, and they've been subpar with Jared Sullinger.

Over the last seven games, small ball lineups with Johnson or Olynyk have a 114.8 offensive rating and 110 defensive rating. With Sullinger, the Celtics have a 103.6 offensive rating and 118.1 defensive rating.

Here's the data:

We're working with small sample sizes here, but it's notable that the Celtics actually haven't been worse defensively when Johnson or Olynyk are playing center in small ball lineups. With them, they have a 110 defensive rating compared to 110.2 with traditional lineups. But their defensive rating balloons to 118.1 in small ball lineups with Sullinger.

The Celtics still have a poor defensive rating with small ball lineups involving Johnson, but their offense is ridiculous, which offsets any dip on the defensive end. The offense could be more explosive because of Johnson's rim-running presence in the pick-and-roll and in transition.

It'd be interesting to see how small ball lineups do with Johnson going forward. After all, they excelled prior to this stretch of seven games. Here's the data:

Considering the data prior to this recent stretch, I'd like to see how the Celtics would respond with a starting lineup that replaces Sullinger with Marcus Smart. We already know Stevens likes this lineup, since he's used it in crucial situations.

In only 23 minutes this season, the "Thomas, Bradley, Smart, Crowder, Johnson lineup" has a 119.6 offensive rating to 102 defensive rating. Those numbers are obviously unsustainable, but they could at least help the Celtics get off to better starts because of their tenaciousness on defense.

Plus, the Olynyk-Sullinger pairing is potent. Per NBA Wowy, they have a +21.2 Net Rating in 152 minutes this season (114.6 offensive rating and 93.5 defensive rating). Pairing that dynamic duo off the bench could rekindle some of the magic they had last year.

It remains to be seen what changes occur going forward. But the stats do suggest a little more small ball with Johnson and a little less with Sullinger could help the Celtics win more close games in this tight playoff race.

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