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The Celtics Look an Awful Lot Like the Warriors

Endless versatility on defense and at least four shot creators on the floor at all time—that’s been the blueprint for the Warriors’ success for years. It’s working in Boston, too.

Getty Images/Ringer illustration

The Celtics always find the weak link. Even without Gordon Hayward and Kyrie Irving, Boston starts five players who can spread the floor and create their own shots, which allows them to isolate and attack the opposing team’s worst defender, regardless of position. The ball finds the open man: Four different players (Al Horford, Jayson Tatum, Jaylen Brown, and Terry Rozier) have led Boston in scoring in the playoffs. Celtics GM Danny Ainge has created a proto-version of the Warriors by emphasizing versatility on both ends of the floor.

Their win over the Cavs in Game 1 of the Eastern Conference finals was a mirror image of their win over the 76ers in Game 1 of their second-round series. Philadelphia head coach Brett Brown tried to hide J.J. Redick, a shooting specialist, on Tatum, and the rookie sensation exploded for 28 points on 8-of-16 shooting. Cleveland head coach Tyronn Lue had a similar dilemma with Kyle Korver, so he tried him on Brown instead. The result was the same, with Brown going off for 23 points on 9-of-16 shooting. A playoff series against Boston is like a game of Whac-A-Mole. There’s nowhere to hide a player like Redick or Korver: Wherever they go on the floor, they get popped.

The Celtics exposed every weak point in the 76ers rotation, and they could do the same to the Cavs. Korver and Jordan Clarkson were the two main targets in Game 1. Korver has clear physical limitations, while Clarkson just seems lost on that end. Neither held up at the point of attack against the waves of long and athletic players they faced on Sunday. Four different Celtics saw Korver as their primary defender on a shot attempt, and they combined to shoot 6-of-12 on those possessions; Clarkson allowed for 4-of-6 shooting against the three players he was responsible for guarding.

Cleveland’s small-ball lineup with Kevin Love at the 5 and LeBron at the 4 played right into the Celtics’ hands. Boston has significantly more wing depth: Tatum, Brown, Marcus Morris, and Marcus Smart are all two-way players who can defend multiple positions and create their own shot. The Cavs’ starting lineup, in contrast, features Korver and two guards (George Hill and J.R. Smith) more effective in 3-and-D roles. It doesn’t get any better off the bench: Clarkson doesn’t defend and Jeff Green is a streaky shooter at best. Lue had no choice but to play Rodney Hood on Sunday, despite his baffling decision to refuse to enter the game in the final minutes of the Cavs’ Game 4 win over Toronto.

There are interesting parallels between Boston and Golden State in terms of the matchup problems they cause. Defenses typically want as much length and athleticism on Steph Curry as possible, but cross-switching on defense forces point guards into a shooting alley where Klay Thompson, Kevin Durant, and Shaun Livingston take turns scoring over them. A lack of size on the perimeter killed New Orleans in its series against Golden State, and it could be an issue for Houston, whose best offensive lineups feature two smaller guards in Chris Paul and Eric Gordon.

Versatile teams thrive in transition—they can push the tempo and scramble matchups. It almost doesn’t matter where Tatum, Brown, Morris, or Smart end up on defense; on offense, all three can punish a mismatch, either by putting a slower defender on skates or exploiting a height difference. The Celtics effectively took Game 1 after a 25-2 run over a six-and-a-half-minute stretch in the first quarter, getting stops and running into open 3s. It was the type of run the Warriors have perfected over the past few seasons.

Maybe the best adjustment Lue can make in Game 2 is forcing Boston out of its smaller lineups in much the same way he did to Golden State in the 2015 Finals. The supersized frontcourt of Love, LeBron, and Tristan Thompson played only three minutes together in Game 1, and they each have the skill set to punish smaller defenders. Love destroyed the motley collection of wings Toronto tried on him in the teams’ second-round series, while Thompson’s offensive rebounding was a nightmare for Boston in last year’s Eastern Conference finals. The less talented team is typically better off when it can limit the number of possessions in a game, and LeBron may be able to drag Cleveland over the finish line if the Cavs can just keep things close until the final minutes.

The idea should be to force Brad Stevens to play Horford and Aron Baynes together as much as possible. The two big men have a net rating of minus-4.6 in 128 minutes together in the playoffs, the second worst of any Boston pairing that has received over 100 minutes. Horford is more effective on offense when he has a speed edge at the 5 as opposed to a size edge at the 4, and Baynes is one of their only rotation players who doesn’t have to be guarded on the perimeter, even though he is shooting 9-of-19 from 3 in the postseason. The Celtics are just much less versatile on both sides of the ball with both in.

Playing bigger lineups would also change Boston’s rotation patterns. Horford and Baynes played together for only six minutes in Game 1, allowing Stevens to stagger their minutes so that one of the two was playing with four wings around him the rest of the game. He didn’t have to give much time to Greg Monroe, a bigger defensive liability than either of the players ahead of him. Frontcourt depth is the one advantage Cleveland has in this series, and the Cavs should be able to win any minutes when Monroe and Larry Nance Jr. —each team’s third big man—are in.

The question Boston still needs to answer is whether it can be as invulnerable to bigger lineups as Golden State. Lue didn’t resort to caveman ball much in the 2017 Finals because Durant, Draymond Green, and Andre Iguodala are all capable of stoning bigger players in the post and protecting the defensive glass. Brown, at 6-foot-7 and 225 pounds with a 7-foot wingspan, could be a key player in this series, since his chiseled physique might allow him to hold up against Love. The 21-year-old hasn’t been used much as a small-ball 5 in his NBA career, but that could be an option as he matures physically.

No matter what happens in this series, Boston’s future looks incredible. The Celtics started the season with Horford, Brown, and Tatum around Kyrie and Hayward, and that lineup now looks like a near replica of the Hamptons Five. A healthy Kyrie is the closest thing to Steph in the NBA, while Horford has Draymond’s combination of defensive versatility and playmaking ability, and the three wings could replicate the matchup issues Durant, Thompson, and Iguodala cause. The Celtics could hide Kyrie on defense and switch any screen involving their other four starters, and then attack a mismatch at any position on offense.

The only long-term issue they might have, other than keeping everyone happy with their role in the offense, is replacing the 31-year-old Horford as he gets older. The good news for Boston is it could have either the no. 2 or no. 3 overall pick in this year’s draft, depending on whether it gets lucky in the lottery on Tuesday. Michigan State freshman Jaren Jackson Jr., an elite defensive prospect who shot 39.6 percent from 3 this season, seems like a perfect fit. If not, the Celtics could have two or three more first-rounders in the next few drafts, via the Clippers, Grizzlies, and Kings.

Over the past few seasons, the Celtics have pulled off the rare double of contending while simultaneously picking at the top of the lottery. It’s the best of both worlds: They are good enough to attract elite players in free agency and they have filled out their supporting cast with elite prospects on rookie-scale contracts. Of course, picking high is only half the battle. Not only has Boston drafted well, it has targeted exactly the types of players (big two-way wings) that NBA teams should be looking for near the top of the draft.

Ainge has taken the lessons Golden State has taught to heart. It won’t be easy for the rest of the Eastern Conference to catch up. The Celtics have the personnel to exploit any hole in their opponent’s lineup on either side of the ball, and they have a head coach who will always find them. They don’t have LeBron James, but they can punish his supporting cast in so many different ways that it might not matter. The Warriors have been waiting for LeBron in the Finals the past three years. Now the King has to beat a younger version of them just to get back there.