A prevailing refrain of the playoffs in recent years is the importance of versatility. The constant desire to deem one style or team-building approach as the new wave surfed toward success is overwhelmingly incorrect.
Many paths lead to a title, not the most recent one that everyone may suddenly campaign or intend to emulate. Regardless of the philosophy, though, versatility is imperative. Holstering counters and adjustments when opponents reduce the magnitude of one strength or leading scheme can be the lifeblood of a profitable playoff run.
Achieving said versatility stems from rostering personnel who touts a multifaceted skill-set that empowers them to shapeshift across game-plans. You require different players to win in different settings. The Boston Celtics and their fearsome, league-leading defense are versatile.
Their two foremost creators, Jayson Tatum and Jaylen Brown, are distinct in their scoring ethos. Their big man rotation of Al Horford, Robert Williams III, and Grant Williams share only a few two-way qualities (though, Horford and Williams crossover somewhat, I suppose) — Robert Williams is especially contrasting among the three.
Yet the guard tandem of Marcus Smart and Derrick White enjoy significant overlap on both sides of the ball. They bring duplicative versatility and it’s helping power Boston toward a championship with particular utility in these Finals.
Smart, of course, is the Defensive Player of the Year, a 6’4 bulldozer who casts his shadow seemingly wherever necessary on defense. Although his offense toggles among maddening, spellbinding, and reliable, he’s an integral secondary and connective ball-handler.
White, meanwhile, is more delicate in his defensive approach, weaving around defenders as though he lets out an “excuse me” before doing so, only to always be fastened at his assignment’s hip. Every rotation is punctually fluid, fitting into Boston’s switch-heavy defense founded on timing.
Like Smart, he’s similarly a mercurial shooter who can get downhill and create for others, even if plagued by indecision at times. But instead, Smart’s bruising, shoulder-in-your-sternum slashing is replaced by methodical probing.
The abundance of their chief skills may be seen as a luxury, yet it’s not. Boston needs this, especially against the Golden State Warriors. Defensively, Smart and White’s most prominent communal ability is their screen navigation. In this series, the Warriors’ most popular form of offense for their top initiators, Stephen Curry and Jordan Poole, has been a high ball-screen, which the Celtics are typically answering with some form of drop coverage.
Ideally, Boston intends to dissuade the pull-up 3s and direct those dudes inside the arc. Curry’s certainly enjoyed some unbothered, off-the-bounce triples and is jiving as a scorer (31.3 points per game on 64.1 percent true shooting).
In general, though, Smart and White’s knack for limiting airspace on and off the ball around picks is contributing to Golden State’s offense failing to replicate its exploits of the first three rounds. Poole’s hesitancy to let it fly around screens stems, in part, from Smart and White’s unnerving auras. Even Curry’s occasionally been deterred by their expertise.
After slapping down a playoff-best 116.1 offensive rating in the lead-up to the Finals, the Warriors’ offensive rating is at 110.5 over the past three outings. At all times, the Celtics keep a premier screen navigator on the floor; sometimes, they maintain two. Aside from playing someone for an entire game, few teams can boast that, especially ones that surround them with other All-Defensive talent. I’m not sure any other club in the league can currently, at least in tenable lineups, which is part of what renders this duo sensationally paramount.
Boston enjoys the flexibility of playing one or both without submarining their lineups. It’s an absolute rarity to pair non-All-Star, exceptional perimeter defenders who aren’t deadeye shooters and see the score trend in your favor. During the regular season, per Cleaning The Glass, the Celtics posted a net rating of plus-2.6 with both of them on the floor (685 possessions). In 484 playoff possessions, they have a plus-4.5 net rating with them. When only Smart is out there, Boston’s net rating has been plus-10.9 (regular season) and plus-3.9 (postseason). With White, those marks are plus-20.2 and plus-9.5, respectively.
Smart and White paper over their roller-coaster jumpers by serving as delightful linking players. Third and fourth options who are entrusted to put the ball on the deck and back up such credence is a necessary windfall for the composition of the Celtics’ roster. However, that sort of dynamic is a scarcity, let alone ones who craft the defensive signature they do.
Tatum and Brown are the ones predominantly tilting defenses. If a shot isn’t available for them once they do, another handler who makes dependable decisions is always present as an outlet. Smart is a bridge of a player whose rise in on-ball prominence was a key part of Boston’s offensive turnaround this season. Another version, albeit to a lesser degree, was something for which the Celtics could seamlessly find a purpose. White’s driving, hasty passing and proclivity to expose ill-equipped assignments as a scorer are all characteristics in line with Smart.
Boston staggers Tatum and Brown to ensure one is constantly playing. It does the same with Smart and White, who are offensive complements and defensive figureheads for the team’s stars. Usually, White replaces Tatum in the first quarter. Throughout this series, that’s diverted Smart off of Curry and into a roamer role, which is better suited for him to coordinate everything for the defense, where he’s masterful. It’s much harder to do so when you’re chasing a historic superstar around the hardwood.
White’s status enables Smart’s defensive malleability to flourish, just as their collective presence does for this Celtics squad. Superstardom isn’t the proper label for these two, but the concept of their coexistence feels about as remarkable as superstars are.