Brad Stevens has seemingly been at his best in his NBA coaching career when he’s had to get creative from a lineup standpoint. He defied the odds to make two deep runs to the Eastern Conference Finals in the past three years, overcoming a multitude of injuries along the way to guide his team past expectations in 2017 and 2018.
The need for lineup creatively has emerged again in the 2020 postseason with Gordon Hayward sidelined for the next month after suffering a Grade III ankle sprain during Game 1. The injury didn’t make the Celtics underdogs against the Sixers by any means but it certainly made them a bit vulnerable. Suddenly, an already thin bench would be left without its sixth man Marcus Smart moving into the starting five to replace Hayward. That left Enes Kanter, a journeyman point guard (Brad Wanamaker) and a bunch of rookies and second-year players to hold down the fort long enough to help the Celtics win two playoff series without Hayward.
Mapping out a formula for success with this group is not an easy task, especially when you aren’t sure what you are getting out of a lot of these guys on a nightly basis.
The situation appeared particularly dire in the opening moments of Game 2 when the Sixers built a 14-point lead in the game’s opening eight minutes. Counting on the likes of Brad Wanamaker and Grant Williams to help dig the Celtics out of this hole doesn’t sound like a recipe for success on paper but that’s exactly what happened in this one. The stage was set with a simple formula that Stevens has identified and leaned on at a critical time to help turn a double-digit deficit to a 128-101 blowout win.
As recently as last game, G. Williams was strictly seen as a fourth-string center on the Celtics depth chart heading into the postseason. He fell behind Rob Williams and Enes Kanter in the bubble seeding games with his play and with minutes going up for all the wings in the playoffs, there was no real need for him at power forward anymore.
With Kanter and Rob Williams having a shaky Game 1, Williams got the call late in the fourth quarter to match up against Al Horford for a couple of minutes as a small-ball five. He didn’t do much in the box score beyond grabbing a couple of offensive rebounds but he was a far more calming presence than Rob Williams on the floor, contesting jumpers on switches, staying solid with screens and playing with a physical presence. Stevens saw a rookie that was ready for the postseason stage and kept that in mind once Hayward was sidelined.
Heading into Game 2, Brett Brown pulled Horford out of the starting lineup to insert Matisse Thybulle into the mix as a wing defender for Jayson Tatum. The move eliminated the double bigs lineup of Embiid/Horford against the C’s speedy starters but that didn’t prevent Brown from going back to his jumbo lineup midway through the first half, playing Embiid, Horford and Tobias Harris all in the frontcourt.
At this point, Stevens turned to a lineup combination he leaned heavily on earlier in the season when injuries arose: Tatum and a four-man bench unit. There have been all kinds of combinations of this group that have played over the past year but one unit that had seen plenty of success together was the frontcourt of Tatum/Grant Williams/Enes Kanter. I highlighted this trio’s +25.4 net rating over 129 minutes together back before the restart as a group that deserved more time together.
We hadn’t seen much of it at all in Orlando (just two minutes in the seeding games) with the C’s at full health but a traditional Sixers front line opened the door for its return and Stevens pounced. The end result?