Is small-ball the answer to the Celtics’ struggles?

Jae Crowder, post-steal, leaving Pacer George Hill in the dust.
Jae Crowder, post-steal, leaving Pacer George Hill in the dust. –The Boston Globe

COMMENTARY

The Celtics’ surprising second half run during the 2014-15 regular season was largely a product of small-ball. With Isaiah Thomas creating havoc in the paint, and wings such as Jae Crowder and Jonas Jerebko stretching defenses on the perimeter, the Celtics closed the year out with a 24 wins in their final 36 games.

All of the pieces involved with that success remained in place for this year’s team, but Danny Ainge complicated matters a bit by stocking the frontcourt with established veterans like David Lee and Amir Johnson. Those pieces gave Stevens plenty of depth up front, but also a logjam with Tyler Zeller, Jared Sullinger, and Kelly Olynyk all jockeying for minutes.

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With so many options at his disposal, Stevens admitted before the season that the team would have to adjust its philosophy based on the extra personnel.

“We have more traditional bigs (than) last year,’’ Stevens said back in September, via MassLive.com. “So we have to play a little bit more traditional and we have to be prepared to do that well.’’

With nearly half of the regular season in the books, Stevens has still not found a reliable mix among those bigs on a nightly basis. Zeller has consistently been the odd man out of the rotation, while Lee has performed below expectations. The others have shown glimpses of their potential, but on the whole have remained inconsistent, despite Stevens’ attempts to mix and match among the proven bodies.

Initially, the Celtics were finding success this season while straying away from going small, but the team has struggled in the last few weeks. Dropping six of their last nine games has made Stevens’s patience with his frontcourt grow understandably thin.

In response, the head coach has turned back to his old formula in the last couple games, closing out both contests with a small lineup that featured three guards and a stretch four. Wednesday’s winning lineup featured four players listed at 6-foot-6 and under with Thomas, Marcus Smart, Avery Bradley, and Crowder sparking Boston to a come-from-behind win.

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Thanks to injuries to Smart and Bradley, as well as Stevens’s typical preference to spread minutes among his logjam of bigs, that small-ball four-man lineup has only played 27 minutes together this season. Twenty of those minutes have come in Boston’s last two games however, and Stevens has been pleased with the results.

“We’ve gone small for the better part of two games now and it’s been pretty good,’’ Stevens said after Wednesday’s win. “I thought we played pretty well against New York when we went small and they hit tough shots, and then I thought we played pretty well tonight. But I thought the turnovers, and forcing those turnovers, were huge, and those guys, that’s what they do. We haven’t had them together very much this year, so it’s nice to get them together out there.’’

Thomas and Crowder have both been vocal in recent weeks about wanting more consistent lineups despite the team’s depth. After Wednesday’s effort, the duo was pleased with the decision by Stevens to get back to the roots of their success last season.

“That lineup definitely works,’’ Thomas said of small-ball. “It’s dynamic, it’s hard to guard, and the best teams make you adjust to them. So coach is doing a great job of finding who he wants to be out there on the floor and guys are taking advantage of the opportunity.’’

“We are just trying to find a groove,’’ Crowder added. “I think Brad knows he has the personnel to switch it up a little bit. We’ve been doing a great job with whatever he throws at us and try to execute on both ends of the court. As of late, that’s what has been working for us so we will see how it goes.’’

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The shift in philosophy could put the Celtic bigs in even more of a minutes crunch for the foreseeable future. Lee and Zeller have both been glued to the bench the past two games, while traditional bigs Olynyk, Sullinger and Johnson combined to play just 64 minutes against Indiana on Wednesday.

Veterans aren’t going to be happy watching from the sidelines, but Stevens has given all of those guys plenty of chances to show they deserve regular minutes. With the Celtics struggling to stay in the mix in a crowded Eastern Conference playoff picture, it’s become evident that more traditional lineups weren’t working for Stevens despite the team’s roster construction.

The head coach can no longer worry about appeasing those bigs. He needs to go with whatever gives his team the best chance of success. It’s a choice that veterans like Johnson understand.

“Whatever gets us the win,’’ Johnson said of the move to more small-ball lineups. “Smalls, bigs, whatever lineup it is, it’s fine for me as long as we win games.’’

It will be tough for the Celtics to recreate the magic the team found down the stretch last year in an improved Eastern Conference, but it’s the best bet for a team that has struggled to put its best foot forward during an up-and-down start to 2016.

Meet the 2015 Boston Celtics

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