In need of a defensive jolt with a goal of slowing down New York Knicks rookie Kristaps Porzingis, the Boston Celtics deployed a three-guard lineup to open the second half that tasked 6-foot-4 Marcus Smart with defending the 7-foot-3 Porzingis.
The unconventional strategy worked as Porzingis, who burned Boston for 20 first-half points including a trio of deep 3-pointers, was limited to six points on 3-of-6 shooting and was minus-10 after the intermission. Alas, even with Carmelo Anthony sitting out the second half and Porzingis further limited by foul trouble, the Knicks got enough from their supporting cast to emerge with a 120-114 triumph at Madison Square Garden.
It will come of little solace to a Boston team that has now dropped four straight and six of its last seven, but the Celtics played a solid and intriguing second half. The defensive switch helped Boston rally out of a 10-point halftime hole and Boston surged ahead when Porzingis fouled out with 2:44 to play. Alas, the Celtics endured some familiar late-game lapses and the Knicks hit a few head-shaking shots and that was enough to spoil all the good that Boston accomplished.
Celtics coach Brad Stevens admitted that the Smart-on-Porzingis assignment was, "kinda crazy, but [Smart] likes those types of challenges."
Indeed, Porzingis seemed frustrated while unable to get the ball while fighting to post up Smart in the early going of the second half. There was one sequence where, after Porzingis missed a layup attempt off a lob in which Amir Johnson shuffled over to help defend, the rookie big man fouled Smart in frustration.
The Celtics had narrowed the lead to four before Porzingis, finally utilizing his height advantage to get off a face-up jumper over Smart, managed to bank home an 11-footer with 9:03 to play in the third quarter. Porzingis picked up his fourth foul on the ensuing defensive possession, sending him to the bench until early in the fourth frame.
On a night that Kelly Olynyk simply didn't have it going, the Celtics were able to find a spark with smaller lineups. In a way, it was a throwback to last season when Boston made its second-half surge by often utilizing Jae Crowder and Jonas Jerebko at the power forward position.
It was also an intriguing look at the three-guard lineup of Smart, Isaiah Thomas, and Avery Bradley, a trio that played 10 minutes together and posted solid numbers. For the season, that trio has logged only 34 minutes together -- in large part because Smart and Bradley have fought injuries much of the season -- but Tuesday's glimpse was enough to make you wonder if Stevens will go back to the combo more often.
As Boston's bigs struggle to deliver with consistency, it will tempt Stevens to lean on his guards more. Thomas is Boston's most talented player, but Bradley and Smart, with their ability to contribute at both ends of the floor (even when their shots go cold), are also among Boston's most impactful players (and you can add swingman Crowder to that conversation). Smart's defensive flexibility allows Stevens to play three guards together without fear of being exploited and it's something that Boston can trot out when it needs a changeup.
What those smaller lineups did in Tuesday's game would be in a larger spotlight in the aftermath if Boston had been able to pull out the win. Instead, the Celtics had more late-game lapses, an ill-advised Evan Turner 3-pointer (one of five that Turner, who is now shooting 16.1 percent from beyond the arc this season, hoisted) in the final two minutes that led to a Derrick Williams leakout and transition dunk in what had been a one-point game chief among them.
There are no silver linings for a Celtics team that is back at .500 and now tied with the Knicks while sitting outside of the current Eastern Conference playoff picture. This was the start of a four-game-in-five-nights stretch for a Boston team desperately trying to catch itself and the disappointment of another loss will be the only feeling that truly lingers.
Stevens can stash the three-guard lineup knowledge in his back pocket. Forget small lineups, his more immediate focus is on all the small things that are hurting his team. As Stevens told reporters, "If we don't improve in the details, then we don't have a chance."