By Tristan Deschenes, 98.5 The Sports Hub
The Celtics came into this season with the frontcourt as their biggest concern.
Boston lost Al Horford to free agency when he signed with the 76ers. That left Robert Williams and Daniel Theis under the hoop. The C’s then added who many thought would be their starting center, Enes Kanter. Despite the Kanter addition, there was still plenty of concern about the Celtics’ bigs and how they would fare against other bigs throughout the league.
However, their loss to the Rockets on Tuesday night should raise concerns for Boston about how they matchup with smaller lineups like the Rockets as well. Danny Ainge said on 98.5 The Sports Hub’s Toucher & Rich this week that he’s not as concerned as others about how the Celtics have defended against bigs, but perhaps he’s looking at how Houston’s smaller lineup took advantage of favorable matchups of their own.
Going into the matchup with Houston, if any team in the league was prepared to match up with Houston’s new “small ball” lineup, it was Boston.
The Celtics rank second in points against in the league (105.7) and fifth in both opponents’ field goal percentage (44.2 percent) and opponents’ three-point percentage (34.3 percent). One through four, their lineup of Kemba Walker, Jaylen Brown, Jayson Tatum, and Gordon Hayward were going to be able to handle the Rockets’ P.J. Tucker, Robert Covington, Danuel House Jr., James Harden, and Russell Westbrook. Boston basically already plays with a small lineup (Theis acts as their center and he is only 6-foot-8), so that matchup with Houston did not look concerning at first.
Here’s the thing: the Celtics actually played pretty good defense overall. They held the Rockets to just 28.9 percent from the three-point line and 42.5 percent from the field. Ultimately, they did what they wanted to do. They kept the Rockets from knocking down three-pointers. But the difference in this game was free throws, with the Rockets getting to the line 45 times and knocking down 37 of them. Harden and Westbrook combined for 27 points from the free throw line alone.
Of course, the real problem in the Rockets game was stopping Harden and Westbrook from driving to the hoop. Boston could not contain the two stars and they combined to score 78 points on Tuesday night. This is why this small ball lineup is so dangerous. With Clint Capela traded away to Atlanta, there is no one clogging the lane for Westbrook and Harden. Westbrook has taken advantage of this, averaging 38.7 points per game since the Capela trade.
Westbrook was able to get the rim almost whenever he wanted against the Celtics, because no one on the C’s could stay with him in a one-on-one situation. If the Celtics did bring help, then Westbrook could pass it out to one of the four defenders at the three-point line ready to shoot. Below is an example of how the Rockets found success against Boston’s smaller lineup.
Notice on the play above how all of the Rockets’ players are around the perimeter. This leaves Westbrook the entire paint to go one on one with Marcus Smart. Kanter has to make the choice of whether to help out on defense or stay home to protect against the three. Kanter stays home and this allows Westbrook to get an easy layup.
Houston’s small ball lineup rendered Kanter basically unplayable, as he only played eight minutes. Kanter could not keep up defensively. The Rockets were too quick for him to defend on the perimeter and he was too slow in coming over to help because he had to worry about his guy shooting threes. This is a cause for concern for the Celtics because Kanter is a big part of their rebounding and inside scoring. His inability to play defense against smaller lineups will keep him out of games where teams do this and the Celtics will lose his presence off the bench.
The Celtics’ offensive struggles against this lineup were concerning. And, I get it, the Celtics had won seven straight games coming into Houston and rebounded against the Clippers. But still, their offensive struggles were surprising, and it had to do a lot with the Rockets’ lineup.
Most of the Celtics’ offense is reliant on motion and getting favorable matchups on switches in the pick-and-roll or on off-ball screens. Well, the Rockets just switched everything. Houston had speed at all five positions on the court at all times. What this did was force the Celtics into slow, stagnant, isolation basketball. This made Boston take a lot of contested shots.
Opposing teams moving forward may think about using smaller lineups against the Celtics, because it limits their ability to create mismatches on the offensive end. It seemed like their whole offense was compromised with the constant switching, which forced them into an offense that looked like last year’s team.
This, combined with smaller lineups keeping Kanter off the floor, could lead to the Celtics offense struggling against these smaller lineups. We saw it on Tuesday night against the Rockets and the Clippers pushed them to the brink, so it’s something to keep your eye on going forward.