Sean Sylver

Small ball Celtics searching for a defensive fix

If you’re like me and you watched the Celtics back in the 90’s, you remember M.L. Carr rolling out Dana Barros, Dee Brown and David Wesley for what Bob Cousy and Tommy Heinsohn called the “mighty mite” lineup. Bing, bang, boom. The threes started flying and the Green would get an opponent on its heels. But once adjustments were made, the C's sunk back to mediocrity faster than Napoleon Dynamite when the music stopped. The 90’s Celtics were closer to competing for the number one pick than a Larry O’Brien trophy. The 2022-23 Celtics have their eyes on a championship. The home team is 3-1 on the young season, with two particularly impressive wins against presumed Eastern Conference contenders in Miami and Philadelphia. But the defense - without All-Defensive presence Robert Williams - has been an early concern. [caption id="attachment_166412" align="alignnone" width="1024"] May 23, 2022; Boston, Massachusetts, USA; Miami Heat forward P.J. Tucker (17) shoots the ball over Boston Celtics center Robert Williams III (44) in the first half during game four of the 2022 eastern conference finals at TD Garden. Mandatory Credit: Paul Rutherford-USA TODAY Sports[/caption] Sans Time Lord, coach Joe Mazzulla has deployed smaller lineup combinations, an inevitability when three of your top six players (Marcus Smart, Derrick White and Malcolm Brogdon) stand 6-5 or shorter. Meanwhile, Al Horford has already taken a seat on the second half of a back-to-back, while Blake Griffin, Luke Kornet and Noah Vonleh have combined to average just 26 minutes per game the last two contests (including the one Horford missed).  The offense on the whole looks great. The Brogdon trade was specifically designed to upgrade Boston’s playmaking, and early returns have been impressive. Whether off the bench or sharing the floor with starters, Brogdon has been both a stabilizing force and a guy who can go on a tear. There’s no better place to go small than today's NBA - where big men are dinosaurs and guards are less inhibited by rules and convention than they've ever been. But no title team has trotted out three players, 6-5 and under, for 24 minutes a night or more in a long time. The last would be the ‘94 Rockets, with Kenny Smith, Vernon Maxwell and Mario Elie (shout to baby Sam Cassell off the bench). That team had Hakeem Olajuwon on the back end. [caption id="attachment_170875" align="alignnone" width="1024"] BOSTON, MASSACHUSETTS - JUNE 08: Stephen Curry #30 of the Golden State Warriors dribbles against Derrick White #9 of the Boston Celtics in the second quarter during Game Three of the 2022 NBA Finals at TD Garden on June 08, 2022 in Boston, Massachusetts. (Photo by Elsa/Getty Images)[/caption] Williams likely won't go down as one of the greatest centers in NBA history, though his disruptive presence has drawn comparisons to the legend. Last year's team managed to temporarily stay afloat without their big man, even in the playoffs. But that squad had a serviceable option in Daniel Theis. The last two games - an unnecessarily close shave against the Magic and Monday night’s debacle in Chicago - magnified Boston's defensive vulnerability. Opposing bigs scored in bunches, with the C's a combined -26 on the glass. Their perimeter defense - which should be the strength of a roster stocked with solid defensive guards and wings - looks discombobulated.  And now, here comes Cleveland to TD Garden: a team with skilled centers Evan Mobley and Jarrett Allen in the starting lineup. Kevin Love and even Robin Lopez get minutes for this crew. They're huge. The Celtics will have to be quicker, more aggressive, shoot the lights out, and figure out a way to make this defense work. Hopefully the last few days have helped. Otherwise, the C’s don’t get consecutive nights off again until December. You'd love to say they're an experienced bunch who can figure it out on the fly; that this is just October hand-wringing for a team that has won three out of four to start the campaign. But the East is tough. And the Green will have to be tougher until their man in the middle returns. Sean Sylver can be heard on 98.5 The Sports Hub. Talk hoops with him on Twitter @TheSylverFox.

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