PHOENIX — In the final minute of the Celtics’ tense win against the Cavaliers on Wednesday, Boston needed to find a way to make Cleveland’s dominant offense wobble. So coach Brad Stevens summoned a group of tenacious, versatile, ball-hawking stoppers that few teams can match.
There on the floor together were Avery Bradley, Marcus Smart, Jaylen Brown, Jae Crowder, and Al Horford. They are five players who pride themselves on defense, five players who probably take more pleasure ripping the ball from an opponent than they do scoring against one.
“We knew with that lineup, we should probably get the job done,” Crowder said.
“That is a special defensive group,” Horford added. “It’s as good of a group as I’ve been in defensively.”
“I think it can be a good lineup for our team, having a group of guys that have that defensive mentality and are scrappy,” Bradley said. “It’s like we’re all pushing each other out there on the floor. I’d love to see it used more.”
If it seems that this seemingly menacing five-man defensive unit — let’s call them the pentagon — has not been deployed often this season, it is because it has not. In fact, these five players have been on the court together for a total of just eight minutes all year.
But there will be opportunities for them to flex their muscles moving forward. As the Celtics continue to regain the defense-first identity that defined them last season, they could turn to units like this one, particularly to help close out games and silence an offense.
“It’ll be interesting to see if Brad puts that lineup in,” Bradley said. “I know teams aren’t going to like it.”
Stevens said the Celtics have looked for spots to use these five players together all season.
“And we think it can be a good group,” he said.
So why have their stints been so rare? Well, first and foremost, the unit has not been intact. The five players have combined to miss 52 games this season, with Bradley’s 22-game absence coming not long after Crowder missed eight games with a sprained ankle and Horford missed nine with a concussion.
Also, Brown, the rookie, was not ready to take on a closing role in a defense-first unit earlier in the season. He was still learning his position, his teammates, and the pace of the NBA. But the 20-year-old has made significant strides since November.
“At the start of the year Jaylen probably wasn’t as ready as he is now to play in those moments with those groups, and that’s a testament to him and his work and his study,” Stevens said. “But this is why we’ve said all along that if we’re going to be the best version of ourselves in April, he’s got to be improving, because he has the body and physicality and versatility to guard.”
In a sense, Bradley’s injury actually accelerated Brown’s education, as he was thrust into a more prominent role in which he has thrived. At various times, all five of these players have been on the floor to help finish a game, and their defense was always a big reason for their presence.
One thing that makes a lineup consisting of Horford, Crowder, Brown, Bradley, and Smart so potentially disruptive — despite a lack of real height — is its versatility. When an opponent sets a screen — the most common way for an NBA team to try to free a shooter — all five Celtics are capable of switching onto the player who was about to shake free from his defender because of the screen. Think of it as an instant reinforcement that simplifies the process and minimizes the time that the offensive player who received the screen is roaming free.
“It just messes an offense up altogether when you’re switching on them,” Horford said. “I think offensively, teams really can’t run what they want, because we’re switching everything and guys are able to contain the ball.”
Versatility and fundamentals aside, these five players are also pit bulls who relish the chance to incessantly pester an opposing ball-handler. And the players said this hard-nosed, gritty approach can be contagious when they are on the floor together.
Now that the Celtics finally are healthy, their defense is starting to resemble the elite unit so many expected it to be at the start of this year. Boston’s defense spent much of the season ranked in the bottom third of the league. But it has been streaking recently. Over the last nine games the Celtics are averaging 102.7 points per 100 possessions, ranking fourth in the NBA.
This surge has helped them slide into 15th in defensive rating for the season, and players are confident they will continue to climb. And as they do, it is safe to say that the pentagon lineup will have a role in the ascension.
“It’s good to have that weapon, that core of guys that coach can put out there at a crucial time of the game like that,” Crowder said. “Hopefully we can get some momentum going being out there together and making an impact on the game. I’m sure that lineup will come back soon.”