A J.R. Smith three-pointer went through the hoop at the third quarter buzzer, and a 20-6 run was complete. Just like that, the Denver Nuggets had cut a 21-point lead to seven.
They’d done it with the help of Dick Bavetta and his crew, an increased intensity, and — above all — the presence of a small lineup featuring Carmelo Anthony at the four. That lineup was inserted into the game when the C’s had a 19-point lead, with 6:31 remaining in the third quarter. A big run later, the aforementioned J.R. Swish three gave the Nuggets a little hope.
But they shouldn’t have been so hopeful. Doc Rivers had already countered the small lineup with a miniature lineup of his own. Old Man Finley at power forward, and both Nate Robinson and Rajon Rondo in the backcourt. With that change, Rivers effectively won his team the game.
When Glen Davis or Rasheed Wallace is defending Carmelo Anthony, the result is inevitably an endless parade to the free throw line and a 14-point quarter for Melo. But when Tony Allen defended Melo, with a host of quick and aggressive defenders surrounding him, the energy and speed advantages were shifted to Boston, and the game was essentially over.
I loved Doc’s decision to go small, but wondered why he hasn’t done it at all this season. He seems entirely against it. Even after the small lineup let the Celtics run away with last night’s game, he said: “You know, they made a run and we were really stubborn, we didn’t want to go small. We really didn’t. But we really had no choice. And, fortunately, our last practice, we actually worked on our small offense, so that allowed us to run it.” And some more: “I wanted to stay big. Honest to God, I did not want to go small, more because I wanted the bigs to play [Denver's] quickness. But we just couldn’t, we had to match up.”
When the Celtics won the 2008 title, one of their most effective lineups had James Posey — a 6’8″ small forward — at power forward. Doc didn’t use that lineup too often, but when he did it created mismatches and spread the floor. Fast forward to this season, and Doc hasn’t used a small lineup — or, really, any makeshift lineups — at all. He’s been content playing the bench mostly as a unit rather than as interchangeable parts to cause mismatches and throw counter-punches. It wasn’t until Doc’s hand was forced by Adrian Dantley’s small lineup that Doc finally decided to throw the midgets out there and speed the game up himself.
I understand why Doc doesn’t go small very often. Before Finley arrived, the Celtics had nobody to go small with. There was no Posey to be able to defend power forwards. You could probably put Pierce at the four, but it would risk putting him in foul trouble. You don’t want your best scorer, a small forward, down in the trenches with the trees for extended periods of time.
But Doc, this isn’t hockey. You don’t have to make line changes all the time. The second unit has played pretty well as its own lineup, but the subs disappear sometimes. There are times they can’t throw a tennis ball in a whirlpool. So switch it up. Put Nate Robinson in with four starters sometimes. Put Finley at power forward, like you did last night.
In his defense, Doc said Finley and Robinson are struggling to adjust to the C’s playbook, and don’t necessarily know all the sets the starters run. But they’ve been with the team long enough, and they’re smart enough players. Finley’s 190 years old; you don’t think he can learn a couple sets? At least enough to run with the starters for a couple minutes at a time? Just throw them in there, Doc. Switch things up a little, create havoc and mismatches in your team’s favor.
Sometimes, you might even want to do it of your own accord, rather than reacting to another coach’s solid personnel switch. Your team might reap the benefits of your creativity.