Celtics basketball is back and what a game it was to start the new season. The Celtics hung on to a wild one 122-121 to defeat the Milwaukee Bucks on Opening Night. Jayson Tatum was the star of the game with his game-winning three-point basket. This will be the biggest takeaway of the game and rightly so, but it was the unconventional starting lineup--at least in terms of Brad Stevens’ history--that is worth taking another look at.
He changed up his normal starting lineup philosophy and ran out two bigs with Daniel Theis and Tristan Thompson playing side-by-side. Stevens historically has not played many two bigs lineups. The past few seasons, he has gone with his wing-heavy starting five built around a big man, and it wasn’t since the Al Horford and Aron Baynes pairing that he has tried this. Tonight, this starting five looked like it could have some promise against bigger lineups that need Tristan Thompson’s versatility on defense.
His rugged defense is one of the biggest upgrades that Thompson brings to the team. He is able to keep big bodies like Giannis Antetokounmpo out of the paint.
This is the first possession of the game that Thompson was one-on-one against Giannis. Giannis gets it at the top of the key, and Thompson was able to get up on the shot fake while then sliding back on an attempt to drive by him to the basket. Giannis was not expecting the quick lateral movements, and he was caught in no man’s land leading to a carrying violation. Giannis still got his 30+ points in the box score, but Thompson gave him some problems when they matched up.
The other positive that comes from this double big lineup is that Theis gets to primarily defend Brook Lopez, someone who has killed the Celtics in the past. If Theis was guarding Giannis, it sets up a mismatch on Lopez’s defender. Last night, he was held to only seven points and, more importantly, only four shot attempts. As the Celtics know all too well, it only takes one player to contribute to Giannis’s stat line to make this team unstoppable, so the team being able to neutralize Lopez with another defensive big like Theis will be very useful this season.
It will be interesting how much Stevens will go back to this lineup. As mentioned, he has not gone big much of his coaching career, but he has never had the opportunity much of the past two seasons. Now, he has a reason to change it up which will be able to make a big impact on the defensive end.
It is not just the defense that Stevens’ has to think about. On offense, these two need to fit well with the other pieces to not slow down the production. Thompson brings an offensive rebounding component that the Celtics will be thankful for. Last year, they saw some from Enes Kanter, but then it was a train wreck on defense. That is not the case with Thompson.
As for Theis, he had himself a decent night sitting in the corner looking for three-point attempt. He scored 10 points and hit two threes. This would be his role playing the “power forward” role in this lineup. He stretches out the defense trying to open up the floor staying around the wing. His old role is run by Thompson who takes the ball at the top of the key and becomes the primary screener in the offense.
While Theis is not a huge three-point threat, he still can make defenders think twice before leaving him around the arc. Here, Giannis did that and left him for an open three from the corner. It is this role he would play whenever he is on the floor with Thompson.
Look for Stevens to use more of this lineup against other teams that use their size as an advantage. Teams like Philadelphia and Indianapolis both throw big bodies at teams and overwhelm them with size. The Thompson-Theis combination can stop these lineups on the defensive end. Stevens will finally be able to match length that gives a new wrinkle to the strategy. Then, on the offensive end, they are able to use new sets that have not been available in an all-wing lineup.
Even as this is only the first game of the season, it was great to see this lineup work against a top team in the Eastern Conference. Stevens will have many months to tweak this with Thompson down low, but the first signs are positive with him contributing to the roster. He looks to be the piece the Celtics have desperately been searching for. This will add front court depth and pair nicely next to Daniel Theis. One game down and the Celtics are off to a great start for the new NBA season.