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Despite Cleveland exposing Boston’s biggest flaws last night, the Celtics must stick to their strengths heading into the playoffs.

NBA: Boston Celtics at Toronto Raptors Tom Szczerbowski-USA TODAY Sports

In the playoffs, you want to put your best foot forward...and then press it against the other team’s throat. Sometimes, it’s not your starting five. Sometimes, you have to trade a little offense for defense or vice versa. For the Celtics, it’s been their IT&D lineup of Thomas-Bradley-Smart-Crowder-Horford that’s been key to the post-All Star break surge.

In March, that fivesome posted a ridiculous NetRtg of +26.4 (in 41 minutes, 113.4 OffRtg, 87.0 DefRtg). That’s behind the Spurs’ versatile lineup of Mills-Green-Leonard-Aldridge-Gasol and just ahead of Golden State’s death lineup (without Durant) of Curry-Thompson-Barnes-Iguodala-Green.

NBA: Charlotte Hornets at Boston Celtics David Butler II-USA TODAY Sports

How are they doing it? A lot of it is their defense. The Celtics went 11-5 in March and posted their best defensive rating of the season at 102.9; that five man lineup boasted a DefRtg of 87.0. That’s stingy. What’s striking has been their perimeter defense. Teams made only one three-pointer out of twenty-two attempts during that stretch with Smart and Bradley hawking guards around the arc. Their small ball lineup allows them to switch everything on the perimeter or go one-on-one with some of the league’s best point guards.

As a whole, they’re holding teams to just over 40% shooting. They’ve given up their share of offensive rebounds, but they’ve made up for it by generating turnovers.

On offense, it’s been all about Isaiah Thomas. He had tapered off in February after a ridiculous start to the season and now, he’s back to his MVP form and maybe even better. He seems more willing to penetrate to create rather than just shooting from the outside. In a small ball lineup with three capable shooters on the perimeter, Thomas has found the balance between being a scorer and being a point guard. He’ll always drive to score, but if it isn’t there, he’ll either try and create contact to get to the line or kick it out after the defense is sucked in.

Al Horford has also started to round into form, too. In March, he’s nearly averaged 14/8/6. His scoring dip can coincided with fewer three-point attempts, but he’s shooting an efficient 56% from the floor after a miserable February where he struggled with a 38.8 FG%.

In this lineup, what makes Horford so effective is his ability to create in the post and off the dribble from above the break. His passing and playmaking allows the Celtics to spread the floor with shooters and create cutting lanes.

Of course, we have to talk about Smart. We can belly ache about his poor shooting of late and how he’s not exactly an analytics darling, but when it’s mattered most, he’s been a gamer. He’s made 11-for-12 free throws in clutch situations (5 point differential with less than 5 minutes to go) and has often become the de facto point guard when the game is on the line; Thomas and Horford lead the team with 16 assists, but Smart is not far behind with 14.

But it’s been the winning plays—the Smart plays—that have made all the difference. The Celtics don’t beat the Cavaliers without these drawn charges from Derrick Williams or the Heat without that offensive rebound and kick out to Isaiah.

Smart has eleven offensive rebounds in the clutch and leads the IT&D lineup with a defensive rating of 107.6. Brad Stevens doesn’t seem fazed by Smart’s recent slump and still believes in his ability to step up in big situations, saying “I know this about Marcus and you know it too – he’ll make big ones. I believe in him shooting when it comes to him, and obviously he’ll have to make the right decisions.”

While the starting lineup has only been able to play together for 32 games, the IT&D has only seen the floor even fewer times in 27. They may be a little inexperienced, but they represent the essence of this team: hard nosed defense combined with an efficient, analytics-driven offense geared to get close looks at the basket and open 3’s. However, it’s not always going to be rosey.

NBA: Cleveland Cavaliers at Boston Celtics David Butler II-USA TODAY Sports

Against the Cavs last night, there was a curious substitution late in the game when the Celtics were already down 22 points late in the 4th quarter. With 6:47 left in the game, Stevens replaced Olynyk with Horford to give IT&D one last final run. I don’t know if he thought they could actually make a dent into the lead or if he wanted them to collectively feel the weight of losing.

The IT&D lineup finished with a putrid 77.6 OffRtg and 148.3 DefRtg; in just five minutes, the Cavs made 6-out-of-8 shots where as the Celtics missed all five of their three point attempts and had three turnovers to one assist. While it’s just a handful of minutes in a blowout loss, it did expose the glaring disadvantages of Boston’s small ball lineup. On offense, bigger teams like Cleveland will bully Boston in the post and in transition. On defense, they’ll dare the Celtics to shoot from outside. In their win against the Cavs on March 1st, they were making those shots in the clutch. Last night, nothing was falling.

Matchups matter in the NBA and for most of the season against most of the teams, Thomas-Bradley-Smart-Crowder-Horford has been a killer lineup. With the Cavaliers and Celtics likely the #1 and #2 seeds going into the playoffs, we won’t know if Boston has an answer to Cleveland’s size unless they meet in the conference finals. Until then, Stevens will continue to roll out IT&D between now and hopefully late May because that’s what got them here.

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