November 9th. That was the last time Brad Stevens had his full complement of vets at his disposal. Before last night’s dud against the Raptors, the Celtics’ lineup of its best core players--Kemba Walker, Marcus Smart, Jaylen Brown, Jason Tatum, and Gordon Hayward--had only played together for five minutes. Forty-nine days later, it finally happened again.
Stevens had gone with either Daniel Theis and Enes Kanter at center and a smattering of Grant Williams at the 4, but with Boston searching for a spark, he fielded Boston’s Big Five to close the first half after Toronto had built a double-digit lead. It didn’t feel desperate or misguided. The Raptors were in the penalty and playing five out would put constant pressure on their perimeter defense.
Tatum’s drive on Serge Ibaka is exactly what Boston is looking for with their five wings and ball handlers spacing the floor. They’re hunting for mismatches, either one of the bigger small forwards like Tatum, Brown, or Hayward bullying a smaller guard or a quicker driver attacking a retreating big.
Here’s Walker beating Chris Boucher off the dribble for an and-1:
On the other side of the floor, opposing teams will try and capitalize on their size advantage. Of the five, Hayward and Smart are Boston’s bulkier defenders and they’ll be tasked with wrestling big men that would usually tangle with 250-pound Kanter and 245-pound Theis. Twice before halftime, they held their ground:
At the end of the 4th, Smart protected the back line by drawing a charge:
After the game, Brad Stevens said this lineup would not be a “high volume group.” They’re a counter punch that could hit back against contenders that will supersize front courts with Ben Simmons, Al Horford, and Joel Embiid or Giannis Antetokounmpo, Brook Lopez, and Khris Middleton or Anthony Davis, LeBron James, and Kyle Kuzma. There’s obviously a give-and-take when you trade versatility and speed for bulk and length.
“I would say that it’s something you won’t see often, but something you’ll see at times depending on match ups and the such,” Stevens said of his small ball fivesome. “If you feel like you can switch everything (defensively), if you feel like you’re not going to get killed too bad on the glass because we look awfully small with that group out there.”
Saturday night was the worst game of the season for the Celtics, but it did allow them to experiment a little with what could be their most explosive lineup in their arsenal.