It’s Time: Celtics Need To Make Difficult Lineup Change Vs. Heat

Al Horford needs to sit


May 20, 2023

BOSTON — There really isn’t a way to argue it anymore. The Celtics need to make a few changes if they hope to overcome the 0-2 hole they’ve dug themselves into in their Eastern Conference finals matchup against the Miami Heat.

Those changes can and will come in many forms.

The biggest thing Boston needs to do, however, is tweak their fourth-quarter offense, as Miami’s halftime adjustments in each of the first two games have severely hindered the Celtics’ offensive production. In Game 1, the Heat upped the tempo as the C’s looked to slow things down and ride their lead to the finish line. In Game 2, Miami went to a zone defense in the fourth quarter, which prevented Jayson Tatum from providing much of a scoring impact as he was kiddy-cornered into playing a distribution role as Boston’s primary ball handler.

The problem for Boston is trying to adjust to multiple things on a two-day turnaround could lead to disjointed play, especially if those adjustments come in the form of asking each individual player to do something different than what they have been doing. There is one move, however, that could provide the Celtics with everything they’ve been without in crunch time over the last few games.

It’s time to sit Al Horford against the zone.

The idea of sitting Horford is something that likely will be very polarizing around Boston. The 36-year-old is still one of the Celtics’ best matchup defenders and has had stretches where he looked like their most competent knockdown shooter. That isn’t exactly what he has shown over the course of six playoff games. Horford used the motivation of his “elite shooter” squabble with a member of the media to knock down 5-of-7 shots from beyond the arc in a Game 3 win over the Philadelphia 76ers in the conference semifinals. In the nearly 197 minutes he has been on the court since that game, the five-time All-Star has shot just 5-for-29 (17.2%) from three-point range.

If the Celtics want to play through Tatum they need people to make outside shots, and Horford hasn’t done that.

Why is Horford the option, you ask? Well, who else do you sit? Jaylen Brown and Jayson Tatum are always going to play the closing stretch. The other two players on the court outside of Tatum, Brown and Horford have been Marcus Smart and Malcolm Brogdon to start the series — two ball handlers who are knocking down open shots.

The options to replace Horford off the bench are Robert Williams III, Derrick White and Grant Williams, all of who should get some run. Robert Williams has played well in his return to the starting lineup, but has found himself glued to the bench in crunch time. White is 6-for-10 from long range in the series, but his addition to the closing lineup isn’t possible without a big in there. Grant Williams can shoot the ball, but we all saw what happened after he makes a shot and is then forced to play defense on Jimmy Butler.

The likelihood that Horford sits seems pretty low, as Boston head coach Joe Mazzulla was snippy in his response to a question about whether he considered sitting Horford and going with someone like Robert Williams in crunch time.

“No,” Mazzulla responded.


“Al’s finished every game he’s played,” Mazzulla responded.

That much might be true, but Mazzulla has shown the ability to tweak things in this series and should strongly consider doing it again. The rookie head coach has tried giving Peyton Pritchard minutes, finally inserted Grant Williams into the lineup and adjusted his timeout strategy throughout the first two games of the series. Why not play the matchups? The Celtics can start games with White in the lineup and close with him alongside Robert Williams. They can start Horford alongside Robert Williams and play Grant Williams more throughout the game to go back to the double-big when needed.

There isn’t one perfect solution. There is one wrong answer, though, and that’s sticking with the same lineups because that is what you’ve done all year. If there was ever a time for Mazzulla to show that he’s capable of stepping up to the challenge of coaching against one of the NBA’s best in Erik Spoelstra, it’s Game 3.

Thumbnail photo via David Butler II/USA TODAY Sports Images
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