When the Golden State Warriors won three titles in four years, a staple of their attack was their Death Lineup, a grouping of the team’s five best players regardless of position. Stephen Curry, Klay Thompson, Harrison Barnes, Andre Iguodala, and Draymond Green all took the floor and shed the label of a traditional center. Warriors assistant coach Nick U’ren famously suggested starting this lineup (and playing it major minutes) before Game 4 of the 2015 NBA Finals. The adjustment propelled the Dubs to their first championship, and the same blueprint later succeeded with Kevin Durant replacing Barnes.
Since then, the league has trended smaller as teams try to stop the dynastic Warriors. Most teams now play multiple ball handlers, have a small ball center, and play multiple wings akin to the length provided by Durant, Dray and Iggy. Lineups like these are almost now commonplace, especially late in games, and no longer looked at as an extreme measure.
Any five-man pairing that dares to be extreme today must be drastically different. To go small must mean to go really small. Through a small sample of 34 possessions this season, Boston Celtics head coach Brad Stevens has toyed with the idea of an extreme small ball lineup that featured Kemba Walker, Marcus Smart, Gordon Hayward, Jaylen Brown and Jayson Tatum.
What were some of the takeaways and lessons learned from this lineup? When did Stevens use it, and what does that illustrate about his belief in its usefulness? How viable is it as a long-term strategy the Celtics can fall back on in the playoffs?
A Targeted Attack
Stevens has gone super-small as a way of forcing his opponent’s hand and getting a big out of the game. Look no further than the December 28th home game against the Toronto Raptors. Toronto was without Marc Gasol or Pascal Siakam, playing Serge Ibaka as their only 5-man. Ibaka had a nice game (20 points, 10 rebounds) and had a hot start, with nine points and six rebounds in the first quarter. The Raptors jumped to a 36-25 lead after the first frame.
In the second quarter, Stevens used a super-small lineup to play Ibaka off the floor. A non post-up threat, there was little chance of Ibaka successfully mismatch posting one of the Celtics’ guards and punishing them for going small. On the other end, the Celtics would go to a simple high ball screen with whoever Ibaka was guarding, force a switch to get him on Kemba, and go at him one-on-one:
Boston was down 12 with three minutes to go in the half when Stevens tossed out their super-small campaign. They closed the half down five and got Nick Nurse to remove Ibaka from the game until after halftime.
This clearly isn’t something Stevens has thrown together out of necessity with injuries or changes. The Celtics actually used this lineup in their comeback effort on opening night against the Philadelphia 76ers. In the fourth quarter, when down 14, Stevens threw his little guys to the wolves against the daunting length and size of the Sixers.
Once again, the man guarded by the big on the other team would serve as a screener to go straight at the other team’s center. This time it was Jaylen Brown, getting a switch where Al Horford would be forced to stay in front of Kemba:
Stevens has a propensity to go with this lineup against teams who don’t feature back-to-basket bigs–or at least don’t have them on the floor. The super-small grouping likely won’t succeed against every team as a result, but it does give their sideline wizard another card in his deck to play.
Someone Needs to Know that Spot
If you’ve ever played organized basketball, you know that plays are taught by position. If you’re the point guard, you need to know where the point guard goes. If you’re the center, you need to know where to stand and when to stand there. To further complicate things, switching positions and having versatility requires quite the aptitude and IQ for adaptability.
That makes Marcus Smart even more impressive for how he functions on offense when the Celtics go super small. When the Celtics don’t play with a true center (or someone who regularly gets reps there), they have two options: abandon the entire system of offense they operate within or teach someone the missing spot.
Since their offense works so well normally, the first choice seemed too drastic for a lineup they’d only use on rare occasions. So Stevens and the staff made the idea to bring Smart, the second-smallest player on the floor and someone widely considered a point guard, into the role the center usually plays. Smart likes to call himself a “stretch-6.”
Check out the diversity of Smart’s role in the video below. Sometimes he’s facilitating at the top of the key where the center does within their offense with backdoor passes and fakes. Other times, he’s setting punishing screens. The point is, Smart will do whatever he’s asked to:
While there are a lot of plays to remember if Smart is to succeed here for more than a few minutes, sets may actually be easier for most than freelance play. Smart isn’t a fantastic scorer by any means, so he won’t be a focal point of the offense, especially in a lineup with the quality of scorers as this one.
Moving without the ball is very different when there’s a big and when there isn’t. Against the Houston Rockets, who also regularly played a five-man unit without a post player in 2020, Smart found himself in the short corner along the baseline, where most bigs would be. He made an incredibly savvy maneuver by timing a post-up and sealing his defender, which took away any help defense from blocking Gordon Hawyward’s rim attack:
Little things like this often go unnoticed. Someone in this stable needed to play a bit out of position, and Smart was the perfect guy for the job.
Guarding Bigs, Switching Everywhere
The key to any small-ball success is the ability to have someone play bigger than they are. Offense is easy when you go small, as you can spread everyone out. But on defense, someone need to guard the opponent’s biggest dude. For the Warriors, that was Draymond Green - a strong, bulky, physical forward who Steve Kerr could rely upon as his small ball center.
In the Celtics’ iteration of a death lineup, there is no small ball center. Everyone has to do their part to guard more physically, but it is Marcus Smart who takes the biggest brunt of the physicality.
Like most teams that go small, the Celtics opt to switch all ball screens to neutralize advantages that give the ball handler a path to the basket. What opens up as a result are post mismatches, where the opposing center can take Kemba into the post and try to destroy him one-on-one.
Unselfish Smart comes to the rescue. He’s always aware and ready to sacrifice his body to save Kemba and prevent a layup:
The unselfishness of Smart makes it all happen. Similar to how the Warriors work hard to protect Stephen Curry, the Celts do the same for Kemba. He may not be quite on the level of Draymond Green and is much smaller, but the amount of fight that Smart possesses allows him to be the linchpin of this lineup.
Stevens has gone small with this five-man unit in other situational areas. They have served as late-game in-bounders and free throw shooters in the final minute of an October 112-106 victory over the Toronto Raptors. They did the same to ice their 112-111 win in Oklahoma City. Deployment of five ball handlers in a late-game situation is not terribly unique, so it’s hard to credit Brad for trying a daring, revolutionary approach in these scenarios.
What he has done, though, is keep the game simple in a certain perspective: sometimes, you have to let your five best players share the floor, regardless of their positions. We’re not sure if we’ll get to relive this group at all this season, but if we do, don’t be shocked if Stevens goes super small in key clutch moments.