BOSTON — Kevin Garnett must be starting to feel like someone is playing a joke on him this season. First, he was relegated to playing center despite his disdain for the position. Then, he was sent out on the court with a bunch of Munchkins.
OK, so Rajon Rondo, Ray Allen and Avery Bradley do not quite qualify as Munchkins. Each of them is more than six feet tall and their games exceed the size of their physiques.
Anyway, multiple times during Wednesday's game against the San Antonio Spurs, the Celtics went to three- and even four-guard lineups. Those units almost wiped out a 17-point deficit before Paul Pierce's potential game-winning jumper bounced off the rim in an 87-86 Celtics loss.
Rather than feel abandoned in the post, though, Garnett felt the quickness of the smaller units energized the Celtics.
"That's what really got us back in the game, our smaller lineup," Garnett said. "The smalls made us quicker, scrappier. I thought we got on the loose balls and had a chance to open up the game and just couldn't."
The Spurs demolished the Celtics around the basket early in the game, outscoring the Celtics 24-10 in the paint in the first quarter and taking a 28-17 rebounding advantage into halftime.
The Celtics showed off the first smallish lineup in the second quarter, sending out Allen, Bradley, Rondo and Sasha Pavlovic to flank Garnett. The grouping was a marginal success, as the Celtics managed to work their deficit down to 11 points by the end of the second quarter.
Mirroring the Spurs' own guard-heavy lineup of Tony Parker, Manu Ginobili, Gary Neal and Danny Green, Celtics coach Doc Rivers went all-in with the shorter squad in the second half. When Matt Bonner manned the four for San Antonio, Rivers stuck Pierce on the 6-foot-10 forward with a deadly outside shot but not much ability to put the ball on the floor or finish at the hoop. In addition, in what would seem to be a clear mismatch, Celtics forward Brandon Bass was able to hold his own defensively against Tim Duncan as the lone big man in some of the small-man combinations.
For most of the final quarter and a half, the Celtics played with some three-man combination consisting of Allen, Bradley, Keyon Dooling and Rondo. Not only did the speed increase the Celtics' fastbreak opportunities, it provided other benefits as well.
The third quarter was the one quarter in which the Celtics outrebounded the Spurs, 14-10, and it was also the one in which the Celtics committed to small ball. Boston's guards flew to the ball, helping to hold the Spurs to nine points in the quarter.
"The small lineup saved us tonight, because [with] the big lineup they were killing us," Rivers said. "Bonner's not a small but it allowed us to go small. We had lineups on the floor with all the guards. We made a run with Keyon, Ray, Rondo and Avery. That's not a very big lineup but they were so active with their hands. Brandon was part of that group and he did a great job on Duncan, and that's not a great matchup for us."
The fourth quarter did not look like the rousing finale of a victory for the Spurs. San Antonio shot 35 percent from the field and committed six turnovers as they were outscored 22-19. But the Spurs were able to make a stand on the final possession, even after Pierce and Garnett worked a defensive switch that left Duncan guarding Pierce on the perimeter as the clock wound down.
"Going small most of the game threw us for a wrinkle for a while," Bonner said. "It definitely changed the dynamic of the game. … We just had to gut it out down the stretch."
The Celtics' next opponent, the Chicago Bulls, has been just as scrappy with some creative lineups. With reigning MVP Derrick Rose sidelined with a strained groin, former Celtics assistant coach Tom Thibodeau has deployed C.J. Watson and John Lucas III at point guard. The Bulls also mixed in D-League call-up Mike James at one point this year and have utilized Richard Hamilton, when he has been healthy.
Rivers and Thibodeau know a lot of each other's secrets, but even they could have trouble gameplanning for the lineups each other's teams have had to use of late.