Playoffs 2020 | East Finals: (3) Celtics vs. (5) Heat

Gordon Hayward adds new dimension to Celtics' small-ball lineup

Boston experimented with lineup featuring Jayson Tatum as the tallest player -- and it worked

John Schuhmann

John Schuhmann

As if we didn’t have enough strategy wrinkles to keep watch for in the Eastern Conference finals, the Boston Celtics got Gordon Hayward back for Game 3 and gave us a look at a small-ball lineup that played just 18 minutes in the regular season.

They just didn’t give us a look at it. That lineup – Kemba Walker, Marcus Smart, Jaylen Brown, Gordon Hayward and Jayson Tatum – kind of won the game. In an 11-point victory that made it a 2-1 series, the Celtics’ best-five lineup was a plus-13 in its 6:35 of playing time.

It’s a small sample size and the last 30 seconds (in which the Celtics outscored the Heat, 6-2) was Miami fouling intentionally. But small sample sizes are what you get in the playoffs and its certainly an intriguing sample for a lineup that could see more time going forward.

Every possession counts, even more so in this series, which has been played at the second slowest pace (94.4 possessions per team per 48 minutes) of the 14 series in these playoffs. All three games have been within five points in the last five minutes (though Game 3 was only a “clutch” game for nine seconds). In the postseason overall, nine of Miami’s 12 games and 11 of Boston’s 14 have been within five in the last five.

Defense fuels offense

Celtics coach Brad Stevens went to his best-five lineup late in each half, standard practice for super-lineups that include at least one guy off the bench (see the Thunder’s best-five lineup from this season). And it made an immediate impact late in the second quarter when Smart checked in for Daniel Theis as Hayward put the Celtics up four with the second of two free throws.

The small lineup is obviously more skilled than one with Theis, Enes Kanter or Grant Williams at center. It’s also quicker. And you can certainly credit the added quickness for what happened in the first 63 seconds after the Celtics went small: Three stops and three fast breaks, pushing that four-point lead to a 10-point cushion:

Play 1: Walker chases Tyler Herro around three screens, denies him the catch and pushes him 30 feet from the basket. Jimmy Butler enters the ball to Bam Adebayo at the left elbow. Herro fakes a cross-screen for Butler and slips to the basket, but Walker stays with him. Brown switches an outside hand-off for Butler and takes the ball away, leading to a dunk for Tatum.

Play 2: Herro gets Walker off his tail with a dance move in the paint before using a cross-screen from Butler and taking a hand-off from Adebayo. With Walker trailing, Brown probably isn’t aggressive enough in switching out to contest Herro’s left-wing 3. But it’s off the mark and the Heat (especially Goran Dragic in the weak-side corner) are slow to react. This time, Tatum pitches ahead to Brown for a dunk.

Play 3: Adebayo flashes to the top of the key and Brown comes from behind to deflect Butler’s entry pass, leading to a third straight fast break.

There’s an argument to be made that the Miami offense is defended better with quickness than with (interior) size. In the regular season, the Heat took only 29% of their shots, the league’s fourth lowest rate, in the restricted area. In the playoffs, that number is below 26%. (League-wide, the percentage of shots that have come in the restricted area is down from 33.0% in the regular season to just 27.9% in the playoffs. Utah was the only team that saw a jump.)

Of course, Smart is willing to play rim protector in that small lineup if needed …

The Celtics did have some size issues with their small lineups, which included 1:49 of the fourth quarter (after Theis picked up his fifth foul) with Brad Wanamaker in place of either Hayward or Tatum. Maybe Theis contests this Butler spin move if he’s in Tatum’s place (guarding Kelly Olynyk) …

And having both Walker and Wanamaker on the floor gave Butler two bully-ball targets after a switch …

Switching more of Adebayo’s screens (instead of having Theis try to contain and recover) could prevent some of his clean rolls to the rim. He did score on a jump hook over Hayward after a switch early in the fourth quarter, but did the same thing to Theis on the very next possession. Having Adebayo screen for Walker’s man and roll quickly would put the Celtics in more of a scramble situation, which they can mitigate by pressuring the ball as much as possible after the switch to make the initial pass tougher/higher/slower.

There was more good than bad on that end of the floor when the Celtics played small in Game 3. If you discount Miami’s last two desperation 3-point attempts, the best-five lineup allowed 13 points on 15 defensive possessions. Six of those 13 were a result of the Celtics just not being aware of Duncan Robinson, once in transition and once after an offensive rebound.

Options to attack

When the Celtics weren’t turning turnovers into fast breaks (there was another midway through the fourth quarter), they were matchup hunting with the small lineup. They mostly went at Herro, both in the second quarter (with Tatum) and in the fourth (with both Tatum and Walker). One of the biggest shots of the game was a Walker corner 3 after Herro contained an isolation, but lost him off the ball.

Having more skill on the floor allows the Celtics more matchup-hunting options. They can isolate with Walker, Tatum or Hayward. They can post-up Smart …

… and Brown is one of the best fill-in-the-gaps players in the league. If you ignore the last 30 seconds in which the Heat intentionally fouled Smart three times, the Celtics’ best-five lineup scored 20 points on 13 offensive possessions on Saturday. As noted, eight of those points came on four fast breaks. None of those possessions were against the Miami zone.

Game 4 on Wednesday (8:30 p.m. ET, ESPN) will provide more wrinkles on both sides of the ball. The Celtics need another win to even the series, and certainly won’t go down without putting their best five guys on the floor.

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John Schuhmann is a senior stats analyst for NBA.com. You can e-mail him here, find his archive here and follow him on Twitter.

The views on this page do not necessarily reflect the views of the NBA, its clubs or Turner Broadcasting.

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