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Smaller lineups could give Celtics needed firepower to chase Nets

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In Game 1, the Celtics utilized larger lineups to try to impose an advantage over the Nets.

Boston Celtics v Detroit Pistons Photo by Nic Antaya/Getty Images

Evan Fournier and Jeff Green both chuckled over the weekend when asked about adjustments the Celtics and Nets would consider entering Game 2. Teams in playoff series typically keep strategy close to the vest. These two sides already know the central theme of the series and it isn’t changing dramatically, because they’re trying to do the same exact thing defensively.

Both sides switched everything in Game 1, and while Boston found surprising defensive success in the first half, the Nets locked down the Celtics’ stars across rotations. Jayson Tatum, Kemba Walker and Evan Fournier shot a combined 14-of-46 to begin a series where it seemed offense would come easier than stops. It didn’t in Game 1, and with the Nets appearing more versatile on defense than it originally seemed, the Celtics should rethink their approach and give themselves more options offensively with something they haven’t done much of in 2021: small ball.

“Their switching, it’s kind of disruptive, it throws you off balance, the offense isn’t the same when the guys in front of you can switch one-through-five,” Fournier said at practice on Monday. “You can create some advantages with pin-downs, pick-and-rolls and all that. When they switch, it kind of kills everything. I have to do a better job of maybe creating more actions, having more energy on the floor and just be more available.”

The Celtics were surprised by what they saw from the Nets defensively, but recent weeks previewed what they’d see from Brooklyn at full strength. Steve Nash doesn’t see his rotations changing drastically soon, and that means a mix of Blake Griffin, Nic Claxton and Jeff Green at center with Deandre Jordan relegated to the bench. That made the Nets an enviable matchup for Boston, compared to the oversized 76ers, despite the talent mismatch. The Celtics, struggling inside with health and productivity, could finally go small extensively for one of the first times all season.

They chose not to in Game 1, instead leaning into a size advantage the Nets prepared heavily for throughout the week. Tristan Thompson played well, scoring four points with two steals, a block and five offensive rebounds as Brooklyn struggled to keep him off the glass. The Nets still won the minutes he played by 16 points, claimed the total rebounding battle and easily isolated Thompson by switching him onto James Harden defensively.

By the end of Game 1, Robert Williams III’s size advantage proved more devastating to Brooklyn. He filled the remainder of the minutes inside, blocked nine shots and effected others inside, like on a Kevin Durant floater midway through the game, and outside on three-point looks from Joe Harris and Harden late. His renewed burst and ability to play extended minutes despite his turf toe handed the Celtics a pleasantly surprising available option at center who held the Nets below 100 points per 100 possessions in his minutes. Thompson, by contrast, sported a 131.3 defensive rating.

“I think we have to score more than 110 to beat these guys on a normal night,” Stevens said over the weekend.

That means the Celtics have to sneak in more offensive threats to keep pace with Brooklyn’s runs. Part of that could be utilizing Payton Pritchard, a 41.1% three-point shooter, who played just seven minutes in Game 1. As for Thompson’s minutes, Stevens will need to consider moving Grant Williams (one minute on Saturday night) to center minutes. His passing, post-up ability and fit in the switching scheme can maintain the defensive game plan while providing things Thompson can’t on the offensive like outside shooting.

Williams received less total center minutes this season with Thompson, Robert Williams and Daniel Theis gobbling those minutes early and leaving his role in flux. He has struggled for much of his sophomore campaign, making him an unpopular adjustment choice, but there are few NBA teams that court a traditional center as rarely as Brooklyn does. The Nets are practically inviting Williams to join the party.

“Defensively, I like what we did,” Thompson said. “Offensively, we’ve got to get the ball popping, moving. Especially when they’re switching one-through-five. We can’t get stagnant with the ball and get into isolations, we got to move it and force their players with ‘swagger’ (quipping at how a C’s reporter described the Nets’ players) to have multiple efforts.”

The Nets, particularly Blake Griffin who struggled as much as anyone on Brooklyn with defensive switches, did not sound worried over the weekend. Green believed the role guys will get more involved, while a performance that cold from the trio of Kyrie Irving, Kevin Durant and Harden together is unimaginable. That doesn’t bode well to Boston’s chances and the Nets’ offensive troubles factor more into their larger ambitions than their ability to win this series.

More Pritchard and Williams, frankly, may not even generate one win for the Celtics. They share defensive concerns with Thompson, but Jabari Parker, for example, played well on offense and posted a 134.6 defensive rating in the loss. Boston’s starters and rotations overall held Brooklyn where they wanted them defensively. More three-point shooting, passing outlets for Walker, Tatum and Fournier will allow them to get freed up and do what they need to do to score the points to keep these games competitive.

“We got to score the ball better,” Stevens said plainly referring to tonight’s goals. “We got to attack their switching better.”