Celtics-Heat preview: ‘Great test' for small-ball lineups


BOSTON – When it comes to small-ball lineups, the Boston Celtics have a couple different directions they go in. 

But the one that seems to draw the most attention is one with Isaiah Thomas and Avery Bradley in the backcourt, with 6-foot-4 Marcus Smart at small forward, 6-6 Jae Crowder at power forward and 6-10 Al Horford at center. 

Offensively it has the potential to be a nightmare for defenses when you consider all five players have 3-point shooting potential as well as the ability to attack the lane off the dribble. 

This season they have played a total of 23 minutes together and have shot 52.3 percent from the field with an offensive rating of 118.0.

But the group has had its struggles defensively (the unit’s defensive rating is a not-so-impressive 126.5) which may become an issue tonight against a Miami Heat team that plays a considerable amount of small-ball now that Dwyane Wade has moved on to Chicago and Chris Bosh’s health has prevented him from playing. 

“They’re very different, but they still got a lot of really good basketball players on that team,” said Boston’s Isaiah Thomas. “They play hard. In their wins this season, they played harder than the other team. We have to know that. Miami is not going to be an easy win. We gotta take it from them.”

“Highly aggressive” is how Celtics head coach Brad Stevens describes the Heat.

“Highly aggressive, fast, they’re playing very small,” Stevens said. “They’re playing (6-8) Derrick Williams at the four (power forward) and (6-8) James Johnson at the four. One thing you know you’re going to get with them; a highly intense, focused purposeful game.”

While there have been calls to see more of the Thomas-Bradley-Smart-Crowder-Horford lineup, Stevens has wisely used them in limited doses. 

“It’s a little bit of a catch-22 because of the size,” Stevens said. “You have a lineup that can really space people out, drive the ball.”

But it makes them painfully undersized in the frontcourt, a factor that hurt them in the closing seconds of their 109-103 loss to San Antonio on Friday. 

The Spurs were able to keep a couple of late-game possessions alive due to their size providing them some much-needed offensive rebounds. 

Smart understands all too well that when he moves to small forward, he and the rest of his undersized teammates have to find a way to do better on the boards. 

When asked what it will take, Smart quickly responded, “You gotta play harder; plain and simple. You gotta out-work every team we play when we go to that small ball, that lineup. Definitely the whole game no matter who’s in, but especially that lineup because we do give up a lot height and that does hurt us on the boards.”

Avoiding the struggles on the glass will be a daunting task even if the Heat continue to play with smaller lineups. Despite the lack of beef up front (Hassan Whiteside being the exception), the Heat will be active on the boards at both ends of the floor. 

Their offensive rebounding percentage is .254 which ranks 7th in the NBA. And their total rebounds per game (55.1) is also 7th in the league. 

Despite Miami’s (5-11) record, the Celtics know this is a team that they will not be able to put away with ease. 

“It’s gonna be a great test,” Smart said. “They have some advantages, they’re quick, they’re athletic. It’s gonna be a good test for us.”

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