Obie Goes Small in Win

March 6, 2002

WALTHAM - We had Run TMC in Golden State. Do we now have Space RAP in Boston?That could well be the case over the final 23 games as the Celtics close in on their first playoff appearance in seven years. Coach Jim O'Brien went with a small lineup down the stretch in Monday's big win over Philadelphia, a lineup that featured Antoine Walker at center, newcomer Rodney Rogers at power forward, and Paul Pierce at small forward. That may not work against some Western Conference leviathans, but it can work against many teams in the East, including tonight's opponent, the Orlando Magic.

   The idea is pretty simple. Have your players space the floor on offense to the point where any one of them can drive to the basket, one-on-one. If challenged or double-teamed, he can kick it to a perimeter guy who has 3-point range. Against Philadelphia, the Celtics not only succeeded in doing that, but also turned Dikeme Mutombo into such a nonfactor that he spent the last six minutes on the bench.

"It's a good lineup," Pierce said yesterday after practice. "It succeeded in taking Dikembe out of the game, and any time you can do that, it's a plus. Plus, it puts a lot of pressure on the defense."

It may be a tad premature to cry "eureka," but O'Brien may have found a solution to the minutes problem for Rogers and Delk. We knew they were going to take someone's time. In this scenario, Rogers gets the minutes of the center, which on Monday night meant Vitaly Potapenko started and went a Przybillaish 14 minutes. Delk started and played 37 minutes at both guard positions, which meant Erick Strickland did a lot of uncharacteristic watching (7 minutes). So, too, did Eric Williams, who played 6 minutes.

O'Brien made it clear that, too, could change.

"Those two have been a big part of what we've done, and we're going to need them," he said.

But he also is eager to see how this new lineup can work. You might hesitate to try it against a team with offensively skilled big players, like Miami or Indiana. But the Magic frequently use a similar lineup, with Horace Grant and four shooters.

"It spreads the court so much that you can't zone a Mutombo and everyone has more of an opportunity to drive and to drive not in traffic," O'Brien said. "That might have been our best job of the year in terms of driving and finding the open man."

The Celtics have made no secret that they are borrowing the Milwaukee blueprint. As O'Brien noted, "They don't finish with the same lineup that they start." That's a reference to figurehead starter Joel Przybilla, who jumps center and doesn't do a whole lot more. He sees a similar opportunity now with the addition of Rogers, who has power forward bulk with small forward range.

That entails moving Walker to the middle, a position he played as a rookie under M.L. Carr. But when Mutombo was on the floor against the small lineup, he was usually guarded by Rogers. But it worked.

Asked if he could survive with a lineup like that more often than not, O'Brien said, "No doubt. It's not just getting away with it, but to have the weapons to match other teams and have the weapons to be proactive and make them match up against you. That's one of the reasons we made the trade."

So get ready for more Spread R (Rodney), A (Antoine), P (Paul). As Pierce noted, "It makes us a tough team to guard. You have guys who can shoot it and pose matchup problems. That's going to make teams a little more hesitant to guard me or Antoine when there's someone out there who can make them pay."

. . .

Tony Battie, who missed Monday's win with a lower right leg injury, did not practice yesterday. He was scheduled for more tests yesterday and O'Brien was uncertain as to his status for tonight. "If I was a betting man, I would bet he wouldn't play," the coach said . . . Strickland and Williams both had season lows in minutes (for games in which they were healthy). Strickland played only six minutes in the Lakers game last month, but he had a thigh bruise. Williams's previous low was 11, on two occasions . . . Pierce and Walker both sat out practice to rest. Delk also sat out with a right heel bruise but is expected to go tonight . . . Mutombo averaged 16 points, 13 rebounds, and 4 blocks in Philly's two wins against Boston this season. On Monday, he had 9 points, 7 rebounds, and 0 blocks. He has had only 10 games this year without a blocked shot . . . O'Brien likes to use 22 assists as a barometer for success, and for good reason: The Celtics are 23-5 in games in which they have 22 or more. They also are 22-2 when they score 100 points . . . The Celtics' eight turnovers matched their second-lowest total of the season. They've had seven on two occasions . . . The Magic are playing Game 7 of a seven-game road trip tonight; they played last night at Indiana. SIDEBAR: MAGIC THUMBNAILS PLEASE REFER TO MICROFILM FOR CHART DATA.

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