Celtics stress lineup flexibility

The Celtics recently started center Chris Wilcox for the first time this season as Paul Pierce moved from small forward to shooting guard.
Paul Connors/AP
The Celtics recently started center Chris Wilcox for the first time this season as Paul Pierce moved from small forward to shooting guard.

Just the other day, Doc Rivers threw out the phrase “silver linings” when discussing a Celtics roster that a tidal wave of injuries has demolished like a shoddy sand castle.

One glass-is-half-full notion that the Boston coach tossed out was that their cadre of new, untested players would receive plenty of minutes, a circumstance that could show the team what it really has on the bench.

Rivers also mentioned the experience those newbies gain could come in handy if they’re suddenly forced into action later in the season — perhaps in the playoffs.


Of course, Rivers had to go fishing pretty deep for those positives. He’d much rather have his stars in uniform than on the sideline, obviously.

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But there’s an issue the Celtics and their opponents will have to face as Boston continues to be down several men.

It could, in fact, benefit the Celtics in stretches and, in other instances, prove to be their biggest weakness.

It’s an issue of unpredictability, specifically with Boston’s lineups and style of play.

Rivers rolled out a small lineup Tuesday against the Knicks with Brandon Bass at center, and Jordan Crawford at guard in place of Courtney Lee, who was out with a sprained left ankle and is a game-time decision Friday when Boston plays Atlanta at TD Garden.


On Wednesday at Cleveland, the Celtics went big, starting center Chris Wilcox for the first time this season as Paul Pierce moved from small forward to shooting guard.

And when Boston does play Atlanta, Rivers said he has no idea what the lineup will look like next, which could be an honest admission or a clever bit of gamesmanship.

“We don’t know going into games who’s going to play, who’s going to play well,” Rivers said after his team escaped Cleveland with a 93-92 win.

He added: “We’re going to change styles. We’re going to go from big to small in every game.”

Against Cleveland, the Celtics were all over the place, playing well and then far from it. Rivers said he told his players at one point, “Guys, we’ve just got to find a way to win.”


The Celtics did eventually win thanks to Jeff Green’s buzzer-beating layup, but Rivers acknowledged, “This is not necessarily how we want to play.”

The Celtics have had 18 different starting lineups this season, seven of which included Rajon Rondo, who is out for the season with a knee injury. In games with Rondo in the lineup, the Celtics, who are 37-34 now, were 18-20.

The lineups Boston has used most since Rondo went down features Lee, Pierce, Avery Bradley, Kevin Garnett, and Bass; its record with that lineup is 12-7.

Yet with Garnett out because of inflammation in his left ankle, the Celtics are forced to decide whether to go big to make up for his absence or play “small ball” and try to outrun the other team with a guard-heavy lineup.

Naturally, switching up styles and players is nothing new; several teams do that depending on the opponent and potential matchups.

However, these are typically minor tweaks, which is why coaches and players often recite the phrase, “We just have to play our game, and we’ll be fine.”

But because they’re so shorthanded at the moment, the Celtics’ idea of “playing our game” is in flux, at least on the offensive end. On defense, though, the Celtics have an identity, even if they’re struggling to defend the basket with Garnett out.

In fact, it wasn’t until late in the Cleveland game that the Celtics began to lock down the Cavaliers, which in turn helped them get back into the game.

“It’s something that we lacked the first 44 minutes of the game,” Green said. “I think we went through a stretch where we did get up 10, but I think we allowed them back into the game because we weren’t playing defense. We had to get back to what we were known for.”

With injuries and plans to rest some veterans before the playoffs begin, the Celtics will become chameleons as the regular season rolls on, adjusting how they look against whomever they’re playing.

Boston doesn’t have many other options, either.

“We’ve just got to figure it out and everybody has to be in on it,” Rivers said. “We can’t have any guys with hurt feelings if they’re not playing or not starting or in a different position. And our guys have been very good at that.”

Said Pierce: “Coach says, ‘Everybody be ready. We’re going to be changing lineups. Some nights we’re going to go big, some nights we’re going to go small. But everybody just has to stay ready.’ ”

Baxter Holmes can be reached at Follow him on Twitter @BaxterHolmes.