With 5 minutes 8 seconds left in the Celtics' game against the Pacers Wednesday night, coach Brad Stevens sent guard Marcus Smart in for forward Jonas Jerebko. Boston had already played much of the period — and, for that matter, the game — using a small lineup. But now Stevens was looking to close out the night and snap a four-game losing streak by going even smaller.
The spindly, 6-foot-9-inch Amir Johnson was at center, surrounded by the four shortest players in Boston's regular rotation: Jae Crowder (6-6), Smart (6-4), Avery Bradley (6-2), and Isaiah Thomas (5-9).
Prior to the Celtics' game against the Knicks on Tuesday, this group had played a total of three minutes together all season. But it was effective against New York, and it had value against the Pacers, too.
Although it could have left the Celtics vulnerable in the post, the belief was that the unit's speed, athleticism, and relentless defense would offset any, well, shortcomings elsewhere. In this instance, the move worked perfectly.
With the Celtics trailing, 92-89, they aggressively attacked on defense and came up with four steals over a 92-second stretch. Each one resulted in a dunk or layup, and a few minutes later, Boston could exhale after sealing a 103-94 win.
"That lineup definitely works," Thomas said. "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."
It is quite a small sample size, but the statistics of this five-man grouping over the past two games are jarring. In 18 total minutes together, it has an offensive rating of 129.9 and a defensive rating of 77.7. That results in a net rating of 52.2, meaning it outscores opponents by an average of 52.2 points per 100 possessions.
To put that figure in perspective, the Spurs have the best net rating in the NBA at 14.9. And of all the five-man lineups that have played 35 minutes or more together this season, only the Warriors have one with a net rating above 52.2.
The Celtics' statistics were buoyed considerably by Wednesday's frenetic finish, and no one should expect this startling rate of efficiency to be maintained. But since Thomas, Smart, Crowder, Bradley, and Johnson had played just three minutes together all year before Tuesday, it appears likely that they will, at the very least, get a chance to continue to develop their chemistry when the matchups dictate.
"We've gone small for the better part of two games now and it's been pretty good," Stevens said. "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 [against Indiana].
"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."
For the most part, it is not that Stevens has veered from this unit. Rather, the players have not been healthy enough to be on the court together.
Because of injuries, Smart has missed 21 games, Bradley has sat out five, and Johnson has been sidelined for two. All three players are critical components moving forward, of course, regardless of whether they are paired together.
But big man David Lee has joined Tyler Zeller outside the regular rotation, and Jared Sullinger's minutes have decreased from an average of 26.5 in November to 24.5 in December to 20.1 in January. So all indications are that Stevens will continue to experiment with smaller, skilled groups that also include Jerebko and Evan Turner.
"We're just trying to find a groove," Crowder said. "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."