Brad Stevens has made no secret about centering the Celtics system around the five best players on the roster since the start of training camp. Everything the team has done has been based around getting the best out of Jayson Tatum, Jaylen Brown, Gordon Hayward, Kemba Walker and Marcus Smart on a nightly basis.
“I think it's probably a good thing,” Stevens said of having his five best players so clear cut back in December. “I think that it's allowed us to create a system on both ends of the floor. Defensively, we have to do a lot of different things because we're smaller than we've been but we knew we were going to be smaller if we are going to have those guys on the court. I've always thought that there is no reason to be the same as everybody if you are not as good at those positions. It's better to be different and play your best guys. Those are clearly our five and our other guys have done a good job of being willing to play whatever role is asked on any given night to complement them.”
While Stevens has been working to bring the best out of those guys all season long with various lineup alignments, those five guys have not necessarily brought the best out of each other when they’ve played together. Countless injuries among the core during the regular season limited the amount of time they were all healthy in the same game to less than a quarter of the regular season. Within that span, Stevens did not try the small-ball look much. Stevens played that unit together just 21 minutes over seven regular season games however and it’s hard to blame him when you look at the numbers. The Celtics had a -21.5 net rating with that group with subpar numbers on both ends of the floor.
“That's awfully small but I think that we do have to consider that,” Stevens said of the look back in December. “I do think we will see that once we get healthy, some — I wouldn't say a lot. That would be a lot of stress on individuals if they have to guard up two or three positions each for a large amount of the game, but you certainly could see it at times.”
Even with the benefit of a training camp and some good health at the start of play in Orlando, Stevens only turned to it once during the seeding games. Boston’s best five was gashed in three minutes of play against Miami as Bam Adebayo bullied smaller C’s defenders in the post and the C’s lacked cohesiveness in that small sample size (28.9 offensive rating(!)) in what ended up being an ugly 112-106 loss.
The injury to Gordon Hayward at the start of the playoffs made the question of whether the ‘best five’ lineup should be given another chance largely moot up until his return in Game 3 Saturday night but that changed in a hurry during his appearance.
"When we got here, Kemba wasn’t practicing for the first few weeks so we never got into that stuff much," Stevens admitted.
Hayward played more than anyone could have expected in his return from a month absence (31 minutes), giving the C’s valuable contributions on both ends of the floor. Six of those minutes came alongside his other best five teammates though and the results were superb for the Celtics, especially on the offensive end of the floor.
162.5 offensive rating
76.5 defensive rating
After the starting lineup, ‘the best five’ ended up being Stevens most used group together after Game 3. So what exactly was this lineup able do in Game 3 that they struggled with during the regular season?
A big part of it comes down to Miami personnel. If Erik Spoelstra wants to play his five best players in this matchup offensively, (Dragic, Herro/Robinson, Crowder, Butler, Adebayo), there are going to be 2-3 matchups for the C’s offense to exploit when they go small. With shooting and dribble penetration threats everywhere, Miami is not able to help as much against these looks without being punished. The Celtics exploited that several times in Game 3.
A lot of the 11-2 run at the end of the first half was fueled by terrific defense from Jaylen Brown that led to a couple of leakouts. However, his ability to provide ball pressure to Bam Adebayo was a strong deterrent with this lineup. Adebayo is one of the most turnover-prone players on the Hea,t so it’s no coincidence that a smaller more athletic player can get into him and cause problems.
"I thought their defense together was great and led to some runouts in the first half," Stevens said. "We have to get more crisp with that group but in the playoffs, the more you play your best players, the better and those are our five best."
Offensively, the Celtics went mismatching hunting on almost every possession and found great looks almost