Killer Lineup: The Celtics' new look

April, 10, 2012
4/10/12
12:09
PM ET
Arnovitz By Kevin Arnovitz
ESPN.com
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Boston CelticsRajon Rondo | Avery Bradley | Paul Pierce | Brandon Bass | Kevin Garnett
Minutes Played: 136
Offensive Rating: 108.2 points per 100 possessions
Defensive Rating: 81.0 points per 100 possessions

How it works offensively
In a move that's sparked debate, Doc Rivers assigned Ray Allen to the bench upon the shooting guard's return from injury. The absence of Allen from this unit makes this lineup a real departure from the C's 2008 and 2010 Finals runs, and the offense has a somewhat different look. With Avery Bradley in Allen's place, the Celtics lose a bit of their spacing, but their stretchy frontcourt of Kevin Garnett (now the nominal center) and Brandon Bass helps mitigate that.

Reggie Miller as the possible exception, nobody perfected the half-court sprint in the single-double quite like Allen, but you won't find Bradley running around screens. That feature is now property of the second unit. Yet this group still runs the Celtics' proficient series of rotating pick-and-rolls -- with Paul Pierce working one side of the floor and Rondo the other. Meanwhile, Bradley moves side to side off the ball to keep the help away.

Now in their fifth season together, Pierce and Garnett have become so smooth as a pick-and-roll tandem, like an old couple who finishes each other's sentences. Garnett still sets one of the best picks in the business, although Pierce's accuracy from midrange has fallen off this season, so moving to his left off a Garnett ball screen then shooting is no longer the best option in this sequence. If the defender actually manages to fight through that screen to Pierce, Garnett will get the pass. And if he doesn't have a clean shot off that pass, he'll quickly read the defense and find something else -- often a streaking Rondo or an open Bass along the weakside baseline.

Rondo approaches every possession in which he's the primary initiator as a scorched-earth attack. He's not without offensive liabilities, and his range continues to limit his options at times, but when he finds space to work and passing lanes to exploit, those deficiencies are no longer in play. He feeds Garnett almost flawlessly and knows when it's time to bail on the first option (say a pitch to Garnett) and adopt the second (maybe a kickout to Pierce, who has his feet set).

With his relentless penetration, Rondo is still pressuring defenses -- which often choose to help off Bradley. No matter, because Rondo can thread the needle to either Garnett or Bass, who situate themselves in that Luis Scola territory just above the baseline about 16 feet from the hoop. Garnett presents all kinds of problems. One of the best passing big men in the league, he's a savvy playmaker away from the basket. And defenders who traditionally help off the C's center now do so at their own peril.

The Celtics aren't a running team, but this lineup generates a healthy percentage of its points in transition (almost 1-in-5). When Rondo collects a defensive rebound, look out. Rondo can move coast to coast as well as any point guard in the league, and watch out for those trailers: Garnett (inside the arc), Pierce (outside the arc) and Bass (rim runs)!

What about Bradley? How is he getting his buckets? Not as a first option, as Allen frequently is, but by being crafty and finding space. Bradley made a pretty baseline cut from the left corner in the opening minutes of the second half against Miami recently, meeting Rondo at the hoop for the dish. Two minutes later? Same thing.

The Celtics’ offense during this regime has suffered from high turnover rates and, this season, an inability to get to the line consistently -- but not this group. All in all, this unit isn't the most highfalutin in the NBA, but of the Celtics' 10 most used lineups this season, they rank far and away as the most offensively efficient.

How it works defensively
The spirit of Tom Thibodeau lives on in Boston, where the Celtics rank No. 1 in defensive efficiency. They were stingy with Allen and Jermaine O'Neal, but with Bradley in the backcourt they're downright ridiculous. As a frame of reference, the Celtics give up a league-best 95.3 points per 100 possessions overall, but with this unit on the floor, that number drops to 81.0. There's a danger of small sample size theater with a lineup that's played only 136 minutes together, but the crazy thing is that the gaudy 81.0 number keeps dropping the more this unit jells.

As Allen's contract expires at the end of the season, it appears the Celtics have some premium insurance if they don't reel in a top free agent at the shooting guard position. Bradley will never be able to offer the offensive punch Allen gives to the Celtics' half-court offense, but he's quickly becoming one of the most aggressive young defenders in the league -- and he's only 21.

Did you see Bradley's block of Dwyane Wade two Sundays ago? Did you see him deny Wade on the perimeter and lock onto him off every screen and curl? Bradley's prowess as an on-ball defender also allows Rondo to play off the ball, where he can use his long branches to play passing lanes and do a little gambling. Those arms also make Rondo a stellar choice to be one of the two back-size zone defenders in Boston's overloaded defense. Because as important as it is for the C's to suffocate the ball handler and send that extra body to the strong side, it's the two defenders on the weak side who have a ton of responsibility -- as they usually have to cover three guys.

Every NBA big man under age 25 should have the video coordinator at his team's training facility make a feature-length DVD of Garnett's half-court defense. If you watch him closely, you won't see a lot of blocked shots or pickpocketing. His defensive game is an exercise in nuance. At 35, Garnett could probably defend a pick-and-roll with a blindfold on, and his most notable contributions are simply where he situates himself on the court in relation to the offense. Garnett's hyperawareness of what the offense is trying to accomplish on a given possession is remarkable. Watch several dozen defensive possessions with this lineup, and you'll never witness an error in judgment by Garnett. All the while, he's calling out instructions to his teammates and guiding Bass to the right spots.

Bass didn't arrive in Boston with the reputation as the league's most linear thinker on defense, but in the confines of the Celtics' system, he is doing fine. Bass might lack Garnett's assertiveness when he shows hard on a high pick-and-roll. He looks nervous, at times, when he's defending away from the ball and has to make a quick help decision, but he's making progress.

That's the thing about systems, Boston's in particular. Allen was regarded as a sieve when he came over from Seattle in 2007, but immediately adopted the principles that governed the Celtics' D. All over the league, we're seeing players with reputations as iffy defenders figuring things out in a smart system (see Marreese Speights in Memphis, Spencer Hawes in Philadelphia to name a couple). These guys may not be all-NBA defenders, but they limit their personal liabilities in a scheme that protects them from making mistakes.

That's the Boston way.


Statistical support for this story comes from NBA.com.

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