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Do multi-guard, small-ball lineups pose a threat to the Celtics?

The Indiana Pacers may have stumbled onto the Boston Celtics' kryptonite, and that is a worrying thought.

Boston Celtics v Indiana Pacers Photo by Dylan Buell/Getty Images

The Celtics suffered a tough loss at the hands of the Indiana Pacers on Sunday night, as Rick Carlisle’s team went ultra instinct from beyond the arc. When your opponent shoots above 50% from deep, it’s usually a tough night at the office, especially when you’re only hitting 27.1% of your clapbacks.

What was disturbing, though, was the regularity in which the Pacers found themselves taking good shots. Just hours after Carlisle had branded Ime Udoka’s team “scary,” the Pacers found themselves toying with the Celtics defense, carving them open like a Thanksgiving turkey, and doing so at will.

You can put some of Boston’s underperformance down to tired legs. After all, this is the same team who overcame a physically imposing Detroit Pistons just 24 hours earlier. But we’ve seen this team lock teams up on back-to-backs before, so there must be more to the story.

“We like to keep teams in the low 20’s at least a quarter or two. We haven’t been able to do that. Our starts haven’t been the best,” Udoka said when discussing Boston’s inability to limit the Pacers' high-octane offense.

One of the first things to stick out is how easily Indiana’s three-guard lineup hurt Boston’s switching scheme. It’s all well and good to apply pressure to the ball handler when there are only limited ball handlers on the floor. The Celtics found themselves forcing the rock out of Tyrese Haliburton's hands only to switch onto Malcolm Brogdon or Buddy Hield, while the other two guards spaced the floor or looked to penetrate as off-ball cutters.

Instantly, the Celtics switch everything style of defense is put under pressure, and without the required level of communication, gaps started to form. The Celtics are notorious for struggling to contain quicker guards, especially off the dribble, and in Brogdon, Haliburton, and Hield, the team's perimeter defense had their work cut out for them - which is clearly illustrated by the trio’s combined 63-point night.

Notice how quickly Brogdon attacks from the perimeter. A quick pump-fake gets Jayson Tatum airborne, and then suddenly, you’re trying to shut down a floater. Instant decisions such as the one above will always be difficult to contain, but when the guard is a fast-twitch savant, all you can do is tip your hat.

We saw similar from Haliburton too, who is destined to become one of the best guards in the NBA at some point.

Maybe things would have been different had Al Horford played. Against the Pistons, Horford was used in a drop style of defense, while positions 1-through-4 switched around him. Having an imposing presence patrolling the paint, relying on lateral movement, is always going to be a good deterrent. Alas, Horford was taking a rest day, which gave us an insight into some of the struggles that eventually lie ahead.

“We miss Al so much. Get him back next game. Just man up defensively. Even though we miss Al, we got guys that can step up,” Robert Williams told the media when discussing Horford’s absence, and the gap in left in the team's defense.

NBC Boston’s Brian Scalabrine noted during the broadcast that he was unsure if the Celtics had dealt with the level of spacing the Pacers had at their disposal. How else can you explain Oshae Brissett morphing into Klay Thompson?

When you look at how the Celtics defense is set up, containing a small-ball lineup does project to be one of the more difficult tasks, most notably for Robert Williams. We’ve all heard the praise on Udoka for moving Williams into a free-safety role, where he guards the weakest shooter on the floor, allowing him to roam and help off his man.

But what happens when everybody is a potential threat and the floor is so spaced out? Can you afford to help off of a catch-and-drive guy with great pace? Or a shooter that’s intelligent with their timing? In essence, part of the Pacers' success came courtesy of nullifying Williams’ effectiveness when protecting the rim.

Sometimes, that success was due to Williams honing in on the ball-handler and losing sight of his man, other times it was due to helping off and being caught a step or two out of position when the pass found the open guy. But most importantly, a spread floor means Rob is on an island in the paint, with no helpers available, and that’s a lonely place to be.

The above clip shows Williams focusing on the ball-handler as they drive to the paint, while his man slowly sneaks into lob position and gets an easy jam. Had the Celtics been dealing with an offense that didn’t boast as many shooters, somebody could have switched there and boxed out on the big man. Williams can’t be everywhere all the time.

There’s just too much room behind the perimeter defenders, and expecting Williams, who is still growing as a player, to guard that space while also operating as part of an intricate ecosystem, is asking a little too much from him.

Perhaps that’s why Udoka put him into drop early in the third quarter, as a form of counter to the Pacers spacing. Unfortunately, Williams has become adept at rotating over onto shooters, so the middle of the floor quickly opens up as the rock travels side to side. You can see Williams in drop in the above clip too, as he starts the defensive possession around the free-throw line.

Of course, Boston’s defense should not, and does not, live or die with Robert Williams. He’s an anchor, sure, but not the conductor. The Celtics have to continue vocalizing offensive movements when trying to guard so that each player knows what’s unfolding on their blind side, and when you’re as spread out as Boston found themselves against Indiana, that’s a core piece to the puzzle.

Or maybe Udoka needs to develop a second defensive scheme, to help alleviate the team's struggles when opponents counter with small lineups? That could include not including Williams at all or perhaps the answer can’t be found in doubling down on a system designed to limit teams with a clear-cut hierarchy. If that’s the case, we need to hope the Celtics head coach has been planning for this scenario all along, and we’re yet to see him have his hand forced.

But still, the loss to the Pacers’ raised some concerns, but not because the team dropped a game or failed to make good on their shots.

The concern isn’t about the Celtics losing the game, or the Pacers getting buckets at an absurd clip. No, the concern is that a defense that seemed borderline impenetrable suddenly has a blueprint to be exploited.

Every roster has a small-ball lineup, one they go to when they need speed and skill. And you shouldn’t be shocked if you start seeing teams test out the Pacers methodology against Udoka’s men in the coming weeks - they would be foolish not to.

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