The Celtics have a lot of new faces at the guard position this year, and with no incumbent there’s room for competition for the closer’s spot. That being said, Jason Terry has to be considered the leader. Terry adds another shot creator and ball handler to the closing lineup, taking a lot of pressure off of Paul Pierce and adding a new weapon to the Celtics end-game arsenal. With Pierce and Terry, the Celtics will have two of the NBA’s top-15 clutch-time scorers (from last year) on the court at the same time. Terry seems the obvious choice for that spot, but it’s not that simple.
Avery Bradley and Courtney Lee are both improving players while Terry suffered a bit of a falloff last year. While Terry is no slouch when it comes to the corner 3-pointer (the calling card of Ray Allen, who we can’t seem to stop talking about), Bradley and Lee were both better. Lee was the second best corner marksman in the NBA last year (among those with 80 or more attempts). shooting 49% from that area, while Terry came in at a very respectable ninth shooting 44%. Bradley was statistically better than both of them (as well as Ray Allen, 51%), connecting on 56% of his corner treys, but did not have nearly the volume of shots as his peers. There’s an argument to be made for Bradley and Lee on this alone, but I think Terry does a better all-around imitation of Allen. He’s more adept coming off of curls and in the pick-and-roll, and his percentage would surely raise from the corners if defenses treated him the same way they treat Bradley and Lee. Combine that with his closer’s pedigree and offensive versatility, and Terry should be a shoo-in to close out the game from the two spot.
But wait, there’s more.
Let’s say for the sake of argument that Rondo, Terry, Pierce, and Garnett are a lock as the core four of the closing lineup. That leaves another spot to be filled. With such a deep and versatile team Doc Rivers has a lot of options, but I’m only going to talk about five: Bradley, Sullinger, Bass, Green, and Lee.
It’s unlikely that Bradley will be able to snag that spot because of matchup issues, through no fault of his own. Whenever I think about lineups I try and keep one thing in mind: Barring injury, the Celtics will have to go through the Heat to get to the NBA Finals. I’m not one to get caught up in Bradley’s height, so let me make this clear: Bradley is over 6’3″. He is taller than Jason Terry, but shorter than Tony Allen. He is exactly the same height as Monta Ellis with a much bigger wingspan. I have the utmost confidence that Terry and Bradley could defend some combination of Wade/Battier/Allen (there he is again!). Instead I’m much more concerned about forcing Pierce to guard LeBron at the four. While Pierce has done an admirable job defending LeBron in the past, he is only getting older. This past postseason we saw Doc start using Pietrus and Bass on LeBron in certain situations, even with Pierce on the floor. Doc has never liked using Pierce at the four, and now that he’s getting up there in basketball years, I’m sure Doc would like to avoid one of his star players being given such a physically demanding task on the defensive end of the floor while being asked to close at the other. I’m sure we’ll see a Rondo-Terry-Bradley lineup at some point this year, but it won’t be closing games on a nightly basis for that reason if nothing else.
Like Bradley, I don’t see Sullinger making his way into the closing lineup, but he an interesting candidate here. Inserting Sullinger in the closing lineup would give the Celtics an additional post player, and one that enjoys working down low a good deal more than Kevin Garnett. That said, Doc doesn’t give rookies anything–Sullinger would have to earn it, and his presence in the closing lineup would present another matchup issue against the Heat: Sullinger vs. LeBron. That matchup seems borderline comical to me (editor’s note: and everyone else); LeBron would abuse Sullinger off the dribble, and his speed would give Sullinger fits on both ends of the floor. If Sullinger continues to develop composure in the post and his outside shot, I could see this becoming more of a possibility, especially given his talent as a passer, but I don’t see it happening this year.
That leaves us with a much more likely trio of Bass, Green and Lee. For whatever reason, I don’t see Bass getting this spot. My love for Bass is well documented: he has a midrange jumper on par with Dirk Nowitzki, is a tremendous free throw shooter, and a hard worker. I don’t even think he defended LeBron all that horribly in the playoffs. The thing working against Bass the most here is his build. Bass is 6’7″ on a good day, but built like a big-man, meaning he is too slow to defend faster fours and too short to defend taller ones. Last year he was markedly improved on defense, but Doc didn’t seem sold on him as a long-term solution in the closing lineup. Still, it’s something to keep an eye on.
Green on the other hand is probably the favorite for this spot, and for good reason: he’s long, versatile, and can theoretically defend LeBron James. However, if Jeff Green is 2011 Jeff Green and not 4 years/$36 million dollars Jeff Green, it is a very real possibility he could lose this spot. Pietrus’s best additions to the closing lineup were his rebounding and hustle, both of which are things Green might be allergic to. I’m a Jeff Green
believer defender apologist, but I’m not sure what he brings to this closing lineup other than being relatively proportionate to LeBron. In fact I’m not even sure if it matters–the numbers suggest that against LeBron, Pierce is a much better defensive option than Green (while point totals were comprable, LeBron’s FG% was 5% higher against Green in similar minutes). While Green might offer everything Doc wants from this spot, he’ll still have to earn it with a strong defensive showing.
So allow me to introduce the dark horse for this final spot, Courtney Lee. Lee is the second best corner shooter in the league and his career defense against LeBron is on par with Pierce’s (see: better than Green’s). With him in the closing lineup, the Celtics can continue to utilize the corner 3, and still integrate Jason Terry’s skill set into their end-game repertoire (it’s like having two Ray Allens but with more defense!). The big question is whether or not Doc is comfortable playing Lee at this position. While Pietrus spent some time at the four last year during the playoffs, he and Lee–though similar of build–are very different players. And LeBron could be the least of Lee’s problems, a legitimate power forward like David West could present serious issues for Lee.
If I had to guess, I’d expect Green to close games during the regular season, and Lee to have a bigger role against small-ball lineups or in special packages. But if Jeff Green is, well, Jeff Green, that all gets thrown out the window and this could very well be a committee by necessity until one of these players separates themselves.
You can follow Jordan on Twitter, where he’ll be sure to mention Ray Allen a few more times: @OffensiveG.