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There’s a Small Solution to the Celtics’ Biggest Problems

Boston must find a way to counter Miami’s versatility after being edged in the first two games of the East finals. If Gordon Hayward can’t return for Game 3, the Celtics have a rookie on their bench who could solve their issues.

AP Images/Ringer illustration

It’s not all bad news for the Celtics. Boston is down two games to Miami in the Eastern Conference finals after blowing fourth-quarter leads in both games, with tempers reportedly flaring in the locker room after Game 2’s 106-101 loss. But there are a few simple adjustments that could get them back in the series.

The Celtics’ two biggest issues are different sides of the same coin. They struggled to contain the combination of the pick-and-roll between Goran Dragic and Bam Adebayo and the off-ball movement from the Heat’s shooters, and could not crack Miami’s various zone defenses on the other end of the floor. Luckily, the same answer can solve both problems: downsizing to smaller and more versatile lineups.

It’s no coincidence that Grant Williams had the best plus-minus (plus-9 in 10 minutes) for Boston in Game 2. The rookie “big” man is a 6-foot-6, 236-pound combo forward who can switch screens and defend all over the floor while also being able to find the open man and make passes through the zone. One key adjustment that Brad Stevens made in the fourth quarter of Game 7 against Toronto was using Williams as a small-ball center. It could work again.

The benefits of using Williams in that role were clear in a five-minute stretch at the start of the fourth quarter on Thursday. He switched onto Dragic in the pick-and-roll, which allowed his teammates to stay at home instead of getting picked apart by the Miami offense once it started rotating. Williams didn’t shut down Dragic on those plays, but he did hold his own:

He was just as valuable on offense, despite scoring zero points and not taking a single shot, because of his ability to move the ball. A passing big man is the skeleton key to beating zone defenses. Williams hasn’t been used much in that role as a rookie, but he averaged 3.2 assists per game last season at Tennessee. These are the kinds of extra passes that he’s more comfortable making than Daniel Theis or Enes Kanter:

Stevens closed the game with Theis at center instead of Williams, but essentially conceded the need to go smaller by putting Jaylen Brown on Bam instead. That move allowed Brown to switch onto Dragic, just like Williams had been doing earlier. Bam isn’t as comfortable scoring over smaller defenders like Brown, who has already displayed his ability to match up with bigger forwards when he shut down Pascal Siakam in the second round.

Erik Spoelstra countered by taking Bam out of the pick-and-roll and using the player that Theis was guarding (Jae Crowder) to screen for Dragic instead. That, in turn, leaves Stevens with a tough decision going forward. Does he keep Theis in even though he will be targeted regardless of who he is defending, or does he bench his center and play his five best perimeter defenders in crunch time? Williams looked like the better fit for this series in Game 2.

But Stevens has another adjustment in his back pocket. Gordon Hayward could return for Game 3 after missing the first two rounds of the playoffs with an ankle injury. He has a better combination of size (6-foot-7 and 225 pounds), shooting, and passing ability than Williams. The Celtics could go to an even smaller lineup with Brown and Hayward up front next to Kemba Walker, Marcus Smart, and Jayson Tatum. They didn’t use that lineup much in the regular season because of its lack of heft, but Miami may not be able to punish it.

The obvious downside to leaning too heavily on Hayward in Game 3 is that he hasn’t played in more than a month. Playing Williams more is a bridge that could allow Hayward to ease back into a smaller role before being thrown into the fire later in the series. Boston hasn’t run out of options. But it is running out of time.