In Game 4, Boston struggled to put their imprint on the game. Miami was aggressive and dominated both ends of the court. No matter what Celtics were on the floor, the team’s energy looked flat, and their offense blunted. This all changed down the stretch, but unfortunately, it was too little, too late.
With the Celtics trailing the Miami Heat midway through the fourth quarter, coach Brad Stevens turned to his “best five” lineup to try and see the game out.
Playing a total of 4.7 minutes together, the star-studded lineup went for 18 points on 50% shooting from the floor. Having multiple ball handlers sharing the court, the Celtics found some fluidity in their ball movement, notching five assists to boost the lineup’s offensive numbers.
Breaking down the Heat’s zone has been an issue for the Celtics all series. However, they do everything right on this play. Jaylen Brown receives the pass from Kemba Walker and in his usual “run through” motion, he immediately drives into the defense’s teeth. A kick-out to Gordon Hayward on the strong-side corner has the defense adjusting on the fly.
Hayward reads the close-out from Goran Dragic and swings the ball to Jayson Tatum. The first time All-Star catches the ball as he’s entering his shooting motion, side-steps, and then fires from deep for the easy three.
Above is another example of how multiple ball-handlers penetrating the defense can generate open driving lanes. This clip’s camera angle is excellent for pinpointing how free Marcus Smart is on this drive - it’s beautiful.
Walker takes a hit on offense, causing him to launch the ball back out to the perimeter wildly. Fortune favors the brave, and in this instance, fortune was named Jaylen Brown. Plucking the ball from the sky, Brown puts it on the floor and penetrates deep into the paint while utilizing some inside-out dribble moves and shoulder feints.
Once the defense collapses on Brown, he pivots and begins to look for passing options. Smart has already started cutting towards the rim. Brown hits him with a simple pass that Smart gathers in his stride before finishing the simple finger roll virtually uncontested.
Shots won’t always fall. That’s the nature of the game. But when trailing in a pivotal game that can swing momentum, either way, getting to the rack is the most desirable option. Miami does a fantastic job of limiting those interior opportunities, but with Boston’s best five on the floor, every player can attack the seams of the zone and collectively, they can manipulate the defense and take advantage of it.
Let’s look at the off ball movement first. On the weak side, you have Marcus Smart curling from the corner to set a screen for Walker. Strong side Gordon Hayward is cutting into the paint while Jaylen Brown is creeping up the baseline almost undetected. With all the movement, Tatum slides over the shoulder three-point position (his favorite spot).
The defense has to react to all the movement happening on the strong side, while still anticipating that Walker will come off Smart’s screen. When Walker rejects the screen and attacks the space created by Hayward and Brown, he gets into the mid-range area with a reasonable amount of room.
Upon Walker making his drive, Hayward fades back to the perimeter to create space in the driving lane. The Bronx native releases a floater as he nears the rim, which he doesn’t convert. Desirable movement with an undesirable outcome.
What’s also encouraging here is the movement without the ball. Too often, the Celtics stagnate on offense when the chips are down. And far too often, the team leans towards its isolation players to create scoring opportunities. Herein is the most significant positive of the “best five” lineup - the ability to hurt teams without the ball.
Operating with additional ball handlers certainly seemed to increase the regularity with which the Celtics drove, too. Until the “best five” lineup entered the floor, the Celtics were on pace for their worst driving game of the series, totaling just 35 drives. Once Stevens called upon his stars, they penetrated the defense with nine drives in a shade over four minutes, taking the team’s total drives to 47 per NBA Stats.
Against a zone heavy Miami defense, 47 drives isn’t conducive to winning. Boston lost Game 1 with 50 drives, Game 2 with 42, and won Game 3 with 58. There’s a clear pattern: penetrate the defense with no fear, and you have a chance at succeeding. As things currently stand, the lineup of Walker, Smart, Brown, Hayward, and Tatum provides the Celtics with that fearless penetration - the worrying part is how things drop off once one of those five head to the bench.
As with all things in life, there are drawbacks when rolling out this lineup - most notably on defense. Every missed rotation becomes amplified with no real size on the floor as the ball works its way into the interior, which is especially troublesome when a team such as Miami is targeting your weakest link relentlessly.
Walker finds himself guarding Jimmy Butler (likely the result of a rotation gone wrong). With Walker offering minimal resistance due to the size mismatch, he’s unable to clog passing lanes or force Butler to face-up. As a result, Butler quickly finds the cutting Tyler Herro driving to the hoop, resulting in an easy interior bucket. At the start of the clip, you can see Tatum looking towards Walker, but no opportunity arises to rotate over, leaving Walker in all sorts of trouble.
This lineup will punish itself whenever a mismatch occurs, regardless of which Celtic is in the defensive position. There’s a legitimate lack of size, making it easy for most teams to attack the paint successfully.
With the Celtics entering Friday’s game as underdogs in a win-or-go-home pressure cooker, it’s plausible that Brad Stevens may take a more extended look at this lineup due to their offensive firepower. Regardless of who’s on the floor, the Celtics will need to show grit and determination if they wish to extend their time in the bubble.