The playoffs are here, and the Boston Celtics are a little short-handed. What does Jaylen Brown’s absence mean for the team?
Simply, next man up.
That’s vital for the Celtics’ frontcourt, as Rob Williams is banged up and might be somewhat limited in the series. That would leave Tristan Thompson as the only big with major minutes through the regular season to combat the Brooklyn Nets.
Understanding what Brad Stevens does at the 5 is to understand the circumstances surrounding this series. The Nets have been playing Blake Griffin and Jeff Green, savvy NBA veterans who have lost a half-step at the 5 to create a hyper-skilled offensive lineup. It’s contributed to a team shattering records for offensive production.
That means coach Stevens has some decisions to make. He can try to match Thompson (or a healthy Rob Williams) to them for the majority of the game. Or he can embrace going smaller, throwing Jabari Parker and/or Grant Williams some minutes at the 5.
For Parker, this is exactly the reason he was brought in: to play the 5, score the ball when the team needs offense and be a unique weapon. Without Jaylen in the lineup, there’s little doubt the Celtics will struggle to keep up with the torrid pace of an offense spearheaded by Kyrie Irving, James Harden and Kevin Durant. If Stevens decides the answer isn’t in trying to stop them but in scoring with them, Parker may get some burn.
Per 36 minutes, Parker is averaging 16.7 points and 9.4 rebounds since donning Celtic green. His Basketball Reference page estimates that he’s spent 52% of his minutes at the 5 this year, a career high. Boston’s offensive rating rises to 118 when he’s on the floor, four points above their regular output.
For Grant, this is a spot I’ve always felt is most natural for him. He’s a strong, stocky, cerebral do-it-all player who is better defending stronger guys than quick ones. He’s ideal for wearing on Blake Griffin or Jeff Green in a best-of-seven series, outworking them, defending them in isolations and preventing them from having a massive offensive imprint on the game.
Out of the two, Williams is the defensive-minded guy the Celtics turn to as an undersized center. His job will be to come in, lock up Griffin or Green, and move the basketball. He can make open shots when stationed on the perimeter and help facilitate from atop the key.
His defense in clutch situations has been heralded before:
Stevens has to look at things from a holistic standpoint. If he does go smaller, he’s putting more minutes on Williams or Parker at the 5. That means fewer minutes for them at the 4, and the need for other wings to step up. Our own Jack Noonan recently dove into what an important series this is for the wing rotation, a group already shorthanded as they make up for the Jaylen Brown absence.
Semi Ojeleye and Romeo Langford may already be stretched beyond their means as they attempt to keep up with Kevin Durant, James Harden and shooting specialist Joe Harris. Is it within the team’s best interests to go small at the 5 to match with Griffin, only to create a disadvantage against another All-Star? That’s the challenge with how loaded the Nets are: it’s like playing whack-a-mole with future Hall-of-Famers.
There is one more “break glass in case of emergency” option: stretch-5 Luke Kornet. While listed at 7’2”, Kornet has taken 64% of his career field goal attempts from behind the 3-point line. That’s an astounding number for someone of his size. The shots haven’t fallen at a high rate since coming to Beantown (making only 25% of his treys) but Kornet is a unique offensive chess piece because teams have to respect his jumper from the top of the key.
In essence, Kornet’s major value is in providing a great counter to teams who are in drop coverage. The Nets are prone to be more switchable when they go small, but could steal some minutes against Griffin by playing Kornet here. If the Nets try to prevent Blake from switching and drop him, putting Kornet next to Jayson Tatum or Kemba Walker in the pick-and-pop isn’t a terrible thought:
The best-case scenario, for all parties, is for Robert Williams to be healthy, productive and able to play upwards of 20 minutes. That simplifies the rotations for Stevens and at least buys him through Game 1 to feel out the series and what the Nets plan on doing. If Williams is out, or not impactful in his minutes, it’s hard to envision Thompson playing more than 30 minutes.
It’s vital that the Celtics figure out what to do the rest of the time.