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The Celtics inability to close with its best five players could be the team’s fatal flaw

Brad Stevens tried to field Kemba Walker, Jaylen Brown, Jayson Tatum, Gordon Hayward, and Marcus Smart on the court at the same time against the Heat and the fivesome failed miserably.

Boston Celtics v Sacramento Kings Photo by Rocky Widner/NBAE via Getty Images

The Rockets racked up over 200 minutes of “micro-ball” (ugh, that nickname) since early February and that experiment has re-emerged as a force in the bubble. The Clippers used their three best starters alongside Lou Williams and Montrezl Harrell to close seventeen games before the suspension and that unit should be intact by the time the playoffs start. Small ball lineups remain important in the NBA in the wake of the temporary demise of the Warriors.

This year’s Celtics can’t find one we can currently imagine sealing a clinching win in the eastern conference finals.

Houston found willing participants in PJ Tucker and Robert Covington, which took a 4-team deal before the February trade deadline. It’s that hard to build an elite unit like the Rockets have. In Boston, the Celtics should feel fortunate enough that Daniel Theis emerged as a center so impactful he mitigated Al Horford’s loss. That’s part of reason why the Celtics’ best five players — Kemba Walker, Marcus Smart, Gordon Hayward, Jayson Tatum and Jaylen Brown — played only 15 minutes together before Tuesday to mixed results (112.5 offensive rating, 113.3 defensive rating). Brad Stevens tried to play them together for three minutes yesterday and it failed again; the Miami Heat rode a 10-4 run into halftime.

Bam Adebayo took advantage of his size advantage and tagged Tatum, Smart, and Hayward with costly fouls. The unit struggled to rebound — now sporting a 59.5 rebound percentage. Boston’s “best-five” posted a 97.4 offensive rating and 118.9 defensive rating (-21.4) through their limited sample of minutes against Miami. Stevens already dubbed the group “something you won’t see often,” a costly denouncement for a team seeking its winning rotation with the playoffs looming.

“Abebayo’s strength in post, Kelly posted, when they switched they went straight to the block and posted hard, which put us in the bad spot. We were so spread out on the shooters,” Stevens said after the Heat loss. “That might be a tough team to play small against.”

The Heat preyed on size and speed advantages all night. They countered encouraging minutes from Enes Kanter (5-of-6 from the field with five offensive rebounds) with a heavy dose of Goran Dragic switches and pull-up jumpers over him. Olynyk and Adebayo battered Smart in the post to such a degree that his frustration seemed to seep into his offensive play before he prematurely fouled out in the third quarter. When it seemed like Andre Iguodala might not play more after a rocky start, he slammed home a put back dunk and dished to Duncan Robinson for a crucial three in the final six minutes.

While Heat head coach Erik Spoelstra masterfully created mismatches for Miami, Brad Stevens struggled to find chemistry with his inexperienced second unit. The Celtics ran out of options at the big man position as Grant Williams struggled again. Smart’s disqualification forced Stevens to use Walker in the fourth quarter. Fortunately, Brad Wanamaker, Romeo Langford, Semi Ojeleye and Kanter — alongside Brown — miraculously won the early fourth quarter minutes by one point until the starters returned with 3:42 remaining down 102-98.

Stevens said the bench will remain tight, but facing extreme foul trouble and Walker’s load management, he utilized two wings that played few consequential fourth quarters all year. Wanamaker barely played on Sunday after heavy minutes against Milwaukee, so the thin Celtics found themselves caught between being unable to utilize their top-heavy team together and reaching for bench minutes.

Langford took zero shots in three minutes--his first in the bubble--while Ojeleye finished 1-for-6 from the field in his nineteen minutes. Only the Trailblazers rely on starters for a greater percentage of their points than Boston, but they’ve been more decimated with injuries. The Rockets stand as the only team comparable to Boston’s top-heaviness, but Mike D’Antoni has found a way to man their best five.

The Celtics may never do the same. Walker, Hayward, Smart, and Brown all missed significant time during the pre-COVID season, complicating their ability to build chemistry. Now Walker’s continued limitation with only five games remaining until the post season could make it even more difficult.

Boston’s inability to close with its best players could be the team’s fatal flaw. Against the 76ers on Opening Night, Stevens tried the unit down 95-81 and received a quick burst of playmaking from Smart, guiding Hayward and Brown to the rim on cuts. On defense, Ben Simmons tortured the unit much like Adebayo did with a cut, a pair of assists to a cutter and shooter, then an offensive rebound that led to a bucket. Boston’s unit left with a 142.9 defensive rating.

They held the Raptors to a stalemate from the field for two minutes the next night, grabbing all available rebounds defensively. Stevens scrapped it for the next six games and then Hayward broke his hand in San Antonio. Smart got hurt in December, then Brown and Walker traded nights off in January and February and into March.

Friday presents an intriguing option to try the best five again against a Raptors team where the best five found success on December 28th, posting a +58 per 100 possessions in six minutes. CelticsBlog’s Adam Spinella broke that game down, highlighting Walker and Smart’s positional awareness.

Boston’s wings should excel in helping and covering space, though Smart’s ability to play up to bigs has waned recently. Olynyk and Abeybayo tagged him with two fouls each and shot 2-for-3 against him. The Celtics will likely opt to lean on Theis while rotating guards and wings around him in the playoffs. But games like Tuesday’s raise important questions toward loftier goals. How long can Kanter play effectively? Does any wing off the bench give the Celtics anything? If not, where does the team go when foul trouble strikes?

Performances like Wanamaker’s on Friday and Kanter’s steady hand ease the nightmare that the Celtics’ bench provides nothing. Williams can thrive defensively in smaller lineups. Boston’s top four is the envy of the league and having a productive fifth and sixth option gives the Celtics a chance to win any game this August. However, the Celtics remain unsure of their rotations two weeks from Round One. Their best five players can’t seemingly play together and that’s troubling.

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