BOSTON — On the eve of the Eastern Conference Finals rematch with the Miami Heat, Boston Celtics coach Joe Mazzola said Tuesday that Robert Williams III will remain in the starting role.
Mazzola’s bold decision to reinsert Williams III with the starting lineup energized the Celtics as the team rallied to win Titles 6 and 7 of the semifinal series against the Philadelphia 76ers. However, given Miami’s lack of size, it was fair to wonder if the Celtics could entice Derrick White back to add more shooting on the floor.
Is sticking with the Williams III the right decision? Playing a team with that group on the field for the past two games definitely falls into the “if it ain’t broke, don’t try to fix it” category.
Although still a small sample size, Boston’s big double lineup is producing numbers this postseason on par with the team’s dominant second half from last season. The group has struggled in the 81 minutes of the regular season together this year, encouraging Mazzola to stick to White in a starting role even as Williams’ third has gotten healthier, but Boston’s post-season play has allayed any concerns that this group can’t capitalize on what made them. Very good a year ago.
Just look at the numbers:
In 32 minutes together in Games 6 and 7 of the Sixers series, Boston’s double-big lineup earned a +29.8 net rating, which included a miserly 92.1 defensive rating. Boston dominated the glass during those minutes, took over the basketball, and scored with ease despite putting a non-shooter on the floor.
But will this group be able to sustain this production against a Heat that prefers to keep Bam Adebayo close to the basket? The big double played just three games together versus Miami last postseason and posted a net rating of -15.3 in a 29-minute sample. This included an offensive rating of 100.
Unfortunately, much of last year’s series data is difficult to parse. Of the 48 5-man units the Celtics used, only two played more than 18 minutes together. Boston’s most popular set saw Grant Williams with fourth with that 5-man unit posting a net +1.2 over the course of 51 minutes. (Having been based on a 7-man rotation at the end of the Philadelphia series, we could see Mazzulla tempted to use Grant or Sam Houser for this round.)
White’s Core 4 played just 18 minutes in two appearances during last year’s series with the Heat, and had a net-under rating of 25 which included an offensive rating of 94.4.
Ultimately, if a dual lineup can generate a lasting offense like it did against Philadelphia, there’s no reason it couldn’t thrive against the Heat. Having Williams’ third at the free safety allowed each of the other Boston fullbacks to play more aggressively. He’s quite the safety net when Jimmy Butler attacks the basket.
The Heat’s biggest concern should be scoring against Boston, regardless of the personnel on the ground.
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After posting an offensive offensive rating of 119 in the first round of the playoffs against the top-seeded Bucks, which included 45 percent shooting on 34.2 3-point attempts per game, the Heat came back down to earth in the second round. Against the Knicks, Miami posted an offensive rating of 112.6 and shot 30.6 percent after the 3-point arc on 38.2 attempts per game. Nix couldn’t punish them as they worked their way through the series.
Boston has the personnel to press down the Miami defense. And the addition of Malcolm Brogdon’s three-point shooting and ball handling would give Boston a boost from last year’s game.
Remember, too, that the Celtics can start big games and have plenty of ability to mix and match individuals to best match their desired way of attacking Miami. By fielding the big bunt on the jump, Boston is challenging Miami to force changes.
Let the chess match begin.
Mazzola said: “I think even if we dictate how the game goes, we have to be ready to adapt. Both teams have the ability to play in different ways. Play big, play small. Because of that, we just have to be open to where the game is and how we can make it.” best influence on her.
Another note: The Celtics have the best half-court offense in the playoffs, averaging 6.3 points per 100 possessions more than the sixth-ranked Heat, according to Glass data cleaning. Boston has to value basketball — something it didn’t have a year ago — and force the Heat to produce enough, offensively, against a defensive lineup to make this series.
But by declaring their intent to stay big, the Celtics are effectively suggesting they’ll ride out their starting lineup until the heat forces them to consider other options.