The Celtics' 'lineup of death' and how it might work

Ever since the Golden State Warriors unleashed Draymond Green's transcendent nut-punching abilities by elevating him to a prominent role despite a lack of defined position, and transformed their team into a small ball scoring machine in the process, other teams have looked to the versatility and unpredictably such lineups could reveal. And while the OG lineup of death might still reign supreme, especially with the addition of Kevin Durant to the mix, it only takes so long for a league as smart as the NBA to breed copycats -- copycats such as the Boston Celtics.

In a recent piece, Jonathan Tjarks of the Ringer identified the Celtics as one of a few scant teams with the personnel to rival the sheer athleticism, skill and versatility that fuels the Warriors devastating small ball attack. The arguments in favor of such a comparison boil down to a basic yet fundamental concept in basketball; the other team can't beat you if they can't score.

Bradley, Smart, and Crowder are three of the best on-ball defenders in the NBA, and they have allowed Brad Stevens to build an elite defense despite lacking a conventional rim protector. Boston will still lack a rim protector — Horford isn’t exactly that type of player, but he’s the best two-way big man the Celtics have had since Kevin Garnett, and he makes their small-ball lineups more dangerous by virtue of having no glaring holes in his game.
 Tjark's point is well taken -- the defensive potential of the five man unit he lists (the fifth man being rookie Jaylen Brown) seems nearly limitless, with the lack of a true rim protector offset by the fact that Smart, Bradley, and Crowder rarely allow their men to get to the rim. Bradley is already an all-defense player and the separation between he and his two junkyard dog counterparts has only shrunk as Smart has learned to tame his fouling habits and Crowder has learned more and more to leverage his unique strength to compensate for a quickness deficit against wings. Another step forward for either could make the trio the sort of defensive force that makes positionality moot.

And before the complaints of homerism flood the comments section, the defensive potential of this trio has received national attention all off season, even beyond Bradley's all-defense honors. Just recently, Kevin Pelton of ESPN profiled the Celtics and had this to say about Smart's defensive contributions
The key is Smart's outstanding defense. RPM has rated him a top-10 point guard in defensive impact each of his first two seasons. At a listed 6-foot-4, Smart is so strong and so tough that the Celtics regularly use him to defend wings -- and even during one memorable playoff game, to try to cool off Atlanta power forward Paul Millsap. Smart is also an excellent ball hawk who moves his feet well enough to defend point guards when necessary.
Smart's versatility, along with Crowder's ability to switch onto a variety of different defensive assignments, is especially enticing because the Celtics roster is littered with other players who work best when their teammates are able to mask their weaknesses. Isaiah Thomas has plenty of fight in him, but his jitterbug quickness on offense doesn't translate into above-average lateral quickness on the other end, and being 5'9" certainly doesn't help.

Thomas isn't alone in that category, however; Jonas Jerebko plays like a wing on offense but lacks the agility to guard threes, and prodigal son Gerald Green lacks the ability -- or the desire -- to guard, period.

But that is the beauty of the pieces that combine to form the Celtics small-ball Voltron -- they work at their peak when they are all together, but can easily make up for the strain of one or even two deficient defensive pieces to inject some offense into the equation.

That is the secret of the Warriors own 'Lineup of Death' -- the full unit rarely played together when you take into account their astronomical plus/minus numbers because of the physical toll that style of play takes, especially on whomever is playing up a position (in GSW's case, Draymond Green playing center). But having the pieces to field such a lineup means you can use its principles up and down the roster and move pieces interchangeably as long as a core group of key players remain part of the mix.

Golden State does this by staggering minutes and ensuring that two of Stephen Curry, Klay Thompson, and Green are on the floor at the same time at most points in the game. For the Celtics, that core group is appreciably shorter on star power, but where the Golden State trio uses a unique passing/shooting combination to be the linchpin of a plethora of lineups, the Bradley/Crowder/Smart trio utilizes shutdown perimeter defense to force turnovers and engineer easy fast break points -- almost regardless of who plays next to them. Brad Stevens knows this, so expect two of the Celtics three defensive stalwarts on the court at all times to fuel the same breakneck pace the Celtics attempted to play at last year.

While the addition of Horford gave the Celtics a legitimate second all star, the green are still a ways away from being able to claim a place in the upper echelon of the league talent-wise. The talent they do have, however, should allow them to play a disruptive, aggressive brand of basketball that will frustrate opponents all year. So the Celtics may not have the lineup of death, but they may just have the lineup from hell.

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