MIAMI — The days of bigger being better, of rounding up the O’Neal-sized (Jermaine, Shaquille) suspects are apparently over. NBA lineups are being downsized, and the Celtics are going sleek this season.
The Celtics have five players standing at, or near, 7 feet tall, and their best rebounder is Jared Sullinger, a 6-foot-9-inch rookie. But most of the minutes will be meted out to mobile ballhandlers who can cause matchup problems for the opposition.
The Celtics reached Game 7 of the Eastern Conference finals last season and they could have called it the end of an era. But they decided to re-sign Kevin Garnett and retooled the offense and will try to make a run for an 18th title.
And run they will.
In the past, coach Doc Rivers was reluctant to get into a “track meet” with the Miami Heat and other athletically gifted teams. Not now. Anyone want to get into a shootout with Leandro Barbosa, Brandon Bass, Jeff Green, Courtney Lee, Paul Pierce, and Jason Terry? Try catching Avery Bradley (due to return from shoulder surgeries in December) and Rajon Rondo in transition. Want your big men chasing Garnett or Chris Wilcox in a 94-foot sprint?
The Celtics are not going to be chained down by lumbering frontcourt types or boxed in by strict adherence to roles. When TD Garden announcer Eddie Palladino introduces the team, he is going to have to modify phrases such as “starting at center.”
“You no longer put a 5 [center] and a 4 [power forward] on the floor,” Rivers said. “You are going to put your best five on the floor. And they are usually going to be your best five offensive guys. That’s the game — all through the league, you’ll see four guards and a big. Because, I think that’s where people have gone. I think the size of players has now evolved — the Jeff Greens, and the LeBrons. They can play 2 [shooting guard], 3 [small forward], and 4, and why wouldn’t you put them on the floor?
“Trust me, every coach would love to have a dominant center, there’s no doubt about that. But if there are none, then why try to just throw one out there? But you’re going to need them and that’s why we went out and got some. Having Jason Collins and Darko [Milicic] and Chris, we have size. So, what I like about our team, against the big teams we can go big, against teams that go small, I think that’s dangerous. If you go small against us, you may be playing into our hands, because our small lineup is — last year, in the past we didn’t have a small lineup.”
The Celtics anticipated this trend toward position-flexible lineups in 2008, their most effective group in the playoffs involving James Posey off the bench. The Heat took the tactic further last season, benching its centers on the way to rallying from a 3-2 deficit against the Celtics in the Eastern Conference finals, then defeating Oklahoma City for the championship.
“I can tell you when building the team I didn’t think of Miami one time,” Rivers said. “I was thinking, ‘What’s going to make us the best team?’ And whatever was going to make us the best team, then we’ll play everybody [in the league]. Honestly, that’s what we thought of. If we’d have really thought of Miami, we’d have thought bigger guards, stronger guards; we thought just ballhandling guards. I thought that’s what we need to be a better team. Courtney makes us better on [perimeter defense]. We already had Avery, and now we’ve got two guards who can defend and defend multiple positions. So, that clearly makes us a better defensive team.”
The Celtics’ vulnerabilities were exposed last season when they lost Green days before the start of the season, then Ray Allen (ankle), Bradley (shoulder separations), Jermaine O’Neal (wrist), Mickael Pietrus (concussion), Rondo (ankle, suspension), and Wilcox (heart surgery).
Allen left for Miami, and the Celtics grabbed Terry, another 3-point sharpshooter. Bradley and, at times, Pietrus, had showed the effectiveness of being a lock-down defensive specialist, so the Celtics bolstered that quality with Barbosa and Lee. Garnett reluctantly moved to center, then seemed to find a comfort level with the role, his mobility and versatility helping change the definition of the position. Rivers had a major say in the league eliminating “center” from the All-Star ballot this year.
Green recovered from aorta surgery and seems rejuvenated as a multitasker. Green will be expected to draw out bigger defenders with an outside shooting threat and post up smaller opponents. Also, Green’s presence is expected to augment Pierce’s effectiveness by forcing foes to use another defensive stopper.
“We’ll go back and forth,” Rivers said. “We’ll go big with Jeff and Paul at the 2 and 3. Last year, we’d slide Paul over to the 4, now we have Jeff at the 4, who can dominate — and with speed. So, I think, talent-wise we’re [better].
“And I think we can sustain an injury. We don’t want one, but I think this team is deep enough to get away with it for a while and last year we were pretty thin, extremely thin.”
The Celtics improvised without Rondo last season, but now they have altered the attack to be less dependent on him. Rondo will still have the ball most of the time and choreograph halfcourt sets. But when Rondo is out, Barbosa, Lee, and Terry will call the shots in a simplified, more improvisational set up.
“We don’t need a point guard with the offense we’re running, to start it,” Rivers said. “You need a point guard to make the passes, and sometimes that’s Rondo. We obviously have a great point guard, probably the best in the league. So, we run a lot of stuff through him. But we also can initiate it with the pass and cut away, and the offense still starts.
“Sometimes, with some groups, just the point guard has to initiate it, start it, run it. We don’t want to be that team.”
The Celtics will also welcome a grind-it-out, slow-down pace at times, placing Garnett and Sullinger on the post and daring opponents to double team.
“This is the best pick-setting team we’ve had,” Rivers said. “Darko loves to pick, Kevin is the best pick-setter in league, [Terry], if he’s not the best he’s right there with Kevin. He’s small but he loves setting picks, that’s what he did with [Dirk] Nowitzki. It’s a lost art in our league, and we have some guys who actually enjoy doing it.’’
So, the title race is on. And the Celtics appear capable of going to the front out of the gate.
“This team is pretty fast,” Rondo said. “We have a lot of young guys now, a good mixture of young and old. This is the deepest team we’ve had, and I look forward to this season.
“Not a lot of teams can say they compete for the championship every season and we have, the past four or five seasons. So, you know, we’ve got to beat the Heat and that’s where the focus is.”