Thoughts on Going Small
Posted by Zach Lowe on Jun 16, 2010
The idea has come up in a few places today: Should the Celtics go small? John Hollinger mentioned it today, and damned if I didn’t just hear Dave freaking Cowens say the words “Nellie Ball” during a phone interview that just played on ESPNews.
The idea is that all the evidence from Games 1-6 suggests Tony Allen is Boston’s most effective defender on Kobe Bryant. Playing TA requires benching either Ray Allen or Paul Pierce in order to maintain a traditional line-up that can deal with LA’s size. But if the C’s go small, they can play all three together.
Going small, traditionally, would mean shifting Paul Pierce to the power forward spot and lining up with: Rondo/Ray/TA/Pierce/KG.
Boston can also go small-ish by keeping their traditional line-up and playing Brian Scalabrine at power forward, which some folks are suggesting as a stop-gap should one of the C’s three trusted big men get in foul trouble. (And by stop-gap, I mean, “stop Shelden Williams from getting on the floor”).
Look: I have no clue what Doc Rivers and his staff are talking about right now, but gun to my head, I doubt we’ll see either of these scenarios in Game 7.
It should be obvious that the Celtics could only go small when the Lakers remove Andrew Bynum, shift Pau Gasol to center and bring in Lamar Odom to play the four. Going small against a line-up that contains Bynum and Gasol is not an option.
Going small always sounds great. Hell, the Celtics won Game 7 against Chicago last year in part because they finally decided to match Chicago’s small line-up with one of their own by tossing Eddie House onto the floor instead of Tony Allen.
But it strikes me as problematic here for several reasons:
• The Celtics have barely done it. Excluding line-ups that logged less than a minute of floor time together this season, Boston played Paul Pierce at the power forward spot for about 60 minutes combined in the regular season, according to Basketball Value’s line-up data. That amounts to almost nothing.
Some of those line-ups have worked in a plus/minus sense; the Pierce-House-Rondo-Ray-KG unit was +16 in just 8 minutes, and the Pierce-Daniels-House-Rondo-Sheed line-up was +14 in just under 8 minutes. A third hybrid of these two units—Rajon-House-Pierce-Ray-Sheed—was +13 in just 5:20 of playing time.
Those are monster numbers, but the sample sizes are tiny. Also notice none of those line-ups included the pairing of Rondo and TA. There is not nearly enough data to support this notion, but I wonder if pairing two guards who can’t/don’t shoot jumpers negates some of the effectiveness of a small line-up.
I’m not sure Game 7 is the time to experiment with a small line-up that includes Rondo and TA, though all bets are off if the Celtics fall way behind early.
• Rebounding. The Lakers destroyed Boston on the glass in Game 6, and, as I’m sure you’ve heard at least 85 times today, the team that has grabbed more rebounds has won all six games so far in this series. And while that is a pseudo-trend, the Celtics will not win tomorrow if LA is able to rebound a third of its own misses again. When rebounding is concern No. 1—as Doc has said it is—I’m not sure going small is a realistic answer.
• Enabling Artest and Odom. I actually think Paul Pierce could defend Odom credibly for short stretches despite giving up three inches in height. Pierce is a gritty rebounder when he puts his mind to it, and Odom’s low-post game is not a threat.
But Phil Jackson isn’t dumb, and if he sees Boston go small, he’ll insert Ron Artest immediately and tell him to go the low block against Ray Allen. And Ray has no chance down there against Artest, who can be an effective post-up player if he finds a mismatch. Artest becomes a scorer, and Ray Allen could pick up two quick fouls in a minute.
• The Scal Issue. Shelden Williams has looked uneasy (and that’s being generous) in the limited minutes he has played in the Finals, so it’s understandable that with Boston down to three bigs, a segment of fans would clamor for Scal to be the fourth big man on the depth chart tomorrow night in case of foul trouble.
The fact that we’re having a Shelden v. Scal debate on the eve of Game 7 illustrates how important it is for the C’s to avoid disastrous foul trouble. And when you’re having that debate, just know this: You’re debating between a borderline elite rebounder (that’s not a joke) and one of the three or four worst rebounding power forwards in the league.
Scal can hit an open jumper, and he’ll make the sound pass and the right defensive rotation.
Is that enough to off-set the drop in team rebounding—in a series in which the Lakers have killed Boston on the boards in all three LA wins?
I’m not sure, but I’m pretty sure I just spent 800 words writing about two issues that are unlikely to be a factor tomorrow. What’s far more likely: Doc rides the KG/Sheed/Baby trio until the end.