Winning games with an 8-man rotation

Boston Celtics v Miami Heat
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With limited depth, the Celtics will drastically change their play style for a few games.

What a whirlwind of a week.

With the dust settling, it appears the Boston Celtics will take the floor again versus the Orlando Magic, but nothing feels like business as usual. The Celtics are without their MVP candidate, an All-Star point guard and likely, many more key rotation players. Contact tracing and adherence to COVID protocols have been ramped up by the league this week, so expect a more cautious approach to players returning to the floor.

At this point, here’s what we know:

OUT: Jayson Tatum, Kemba Walker, Romeo Langford, Robert Williams, Carsen Edwards

IN: Marcus Smart, Tristan Thompson, Payton Pritchard, Jeff Teague, Grant Williams, Aaron Nesmith, Tacko Fall, Tremont Waters

QUESTIONABLE: Jaylen Brown, Daniel Theis, Semi Ojeleye, Javonte Green

It is conceivable that the Celtics take on the Orlando Magic on Friday and New York Knicks on Sunday with only eight players in the lineup.

So what might that look like for the team? What simple adjustments can Brad Stevens make to keep his team competitive?

Simple offensive gameplans

When Brad Stevens put together the main offensive system for this Celtics team, he did so in a way where all spots 1 thru 4 were interchangeable. The unique skills of the Celtics’ wings like Tatum, Brown and Smart meant he’d need to balance getting them the rock in isolations, off screens, in the pick-and-roll, or on the move.

We see an advantage to that now that the Celtics are potentially without Brown or Tatum for a couple of games. As other Celtics come off the bench to play meaningful minutes, there isn’t a fear of not being able to run their normal playbook. In theory, every reserve knows each of those spots 1 thru 4.

Where things get dicey are in two areas. First, lineups where multiple bigs play at the same time. The offense is designed to have only one big in there who can play the 5. To start the season, we saw the Daniel Theis-Tristan Thompson pairing attempted because Theis was able to learn his role as the de facto 4-man and at times, another wing.

If the Celtics are desperate for minutes and stretched thin on their bench, they may resort to trying the ill-fitting pairing of Thompson and Tacko Fall together. It would be a spacing challenge for the team though, and likely more of a “break glass in case of emergency” situation.

Realistically, the Celtics would juggle six players in the other four spots, leading to a large number of minutes for all. Each would average 32 on the night in this scenario. Inevitable are multi-point guard lineups, where any of the Celtics four primary handlers (Smart, Teague, Pritchard, Waters) share the floor. How the Celtics balance their skills with a ball screen attack will be fascinating.

The second area of challenge is in Boston’s reliance on isolations to create offense. Per Synergy Sports player tracking, the Celtics are second in the NBA in frequency of isolations, seeing 9.7% of their possessions end in an ISO. Of course, those numbers are dictated by the play of Tatum and Brown.

Without those players’ present, Stevens will have to lean heavily on the screening or ball screen aspects of the playbook, keeping things simple for easy reads.

Boston Celtics v Detroit PistonsPhoto by Nic Antaya/Getty Images

A lot of zone defense

When a lack of depth on the bench is apparent, there’s a generally accepted principle in the basketball world: play more zone. It extends from your local summer men’s league all the way to the NBA. We saw it frequently from the Philadelphia 76ers earlier this week while going through short-handed COVID protocols.

There are many benefits to playing a zone. One is avoiding fatigue. Generally, defenders move less when they’re in control of an area instead of following their man. To avoid burnout and a dead fourth quarter, teams will proactively resort to playing a zone, hoping to keep their key guys fresh for crunch time.

Another benefit is avoiding foul trouble. Nothing can undo a team more than seeing a key player sit thanks to fouling, or worse, foul out. There’s a lack of contingency plans in place should one of these Celtics foul out. Zone defenses are generally better about limiting foul calls.

While this may not be a benefit, zone defenses also tend to encourage more perimeter shots. The Celtics could give up plenty of open threes. It doesn’t sound ideal, but it could help them stay in the game by saying “the only way we lose is if you out-shoot us, not out-talent us.”

Timeout Usage

Timeouts are pretty formulaic in the pros. They’re used at routine times to provide breaks in the action, give natural substitutions or elongate the game down the stretch. As you likely have heard before, basketball is a game of runs. Routine timeout usage is interrupted by the need to use one to stop a run, adjust a gameplan component and refocus the group.

When your team is shorthanded, those timeouts become less frequent. Instead, calling for a break is meant to provide rest to a thin roster so they never reach overly fatigued levels. I’m weary of this coming off a week of rest, where the C’s might not have had the same practice or cardio habits.

Stevens has to be careful about burning timeouts in succession or close to another break. Those can come back to bite him later during extended periods when there will be at least two Celtics left on the floor who might need a breather and can’t get one.