Boston Celtics: bench
With Avery Bradley now back in the fold and the team almost completely healthy (Chris Wilcox, nursing an injured right thumb, returned to practice on Sunday), the likes of Jason Terry, Courtney Lee, Jeff Green, and Jared Sullinger are establishing more solidified roles, and the last three games have seen Boston's reserves come through with arguably their finest production of the season.
In Boston's latest three victories -- all part of a larger five-game winning streak -- the bench has come through with an average of 42 points per game, providing the potent scoring output and support Rajon Rondo, Paul Pierce, and Kevin Garnett had been seeking the first two months of the season.
"I think they have a certain swagger about themselves right now that we're just following -- this kind of pattern right now, this beautiful pattern," Garnett said before practice on Sunday. "So, right now, I'm telling you, our bench is coming in and giving us unbelievable spark, so it's a good balance right now."
After an injury-ravaged second unit struggled to consistently produce in the postseason last season, Boston seemed hellbent on strengthening the supporting cast this summer. The Celtics made former Sixth Man of the Year Jason Terry a primary offseason target, then added more wing depth in Courtney Lee. Along the way, the Celtics also brought back Chris Wilcox and Keyon Dooling on cost-efficient one-year deals and, soon it would seem, the team is expected to finalize a long-term deal with Jeff Green. Sprinkle in Jason Collins for frontcourt depth, as well as a rookie class headlined by Jared Sullinger, and there's potential for this bench to be one of the deepest in the league.
Alas, it's impossible to discuss the reserves without the usual asterisks. In each of the last three seasons, Boston thought it had put cobbled the necessary supporting cast to make another title run, but it was never quite enough. In 2010, a Rasheed Wallace-led bench ran out of gas in the NBA Finals against the Lakers; in 2011, Shaquille O'Neal limped through an injury-plagued campaign that left the team short on depth; and last season the losses of Green and Wilcox (along with Jermaine O'Neal) depleted Boston's overall second-unit depth.
There's plenty to like about this year's supporting cast. If players like Terry, Lee, and Green can simply play to the levels they've displayed in recent seasons, Boston could truly field one of the deepest benches in the league. But this crew has gotta show it.
And there's plenty of questions marks. Can Green and Wilcox bounce back after missing time last season due to heart ailments? Is Sullinger ready for a rotation role as a rookie? Do the Celtics have enough pure size up front, and can they lean on another rookie like Fab Melo if needed?
If Terry can set the tone, the rest of the bench should fall into line. Paul Pierce used to gush how the second unit would push Boston's starters in practices before the start of the 2009-10 season. The Celtics need that sort of confidence and competitiveness from this bench.
And if injuries rear their ugly heads yet again, Boston is as prepared as ever to navigate that potential turbulence with this reserve unit.
Read on for our panel predictions.
The Celtics can live with LeBron James and Dwyane Wade's individual and collaborative greatness beating them, the same way Miami can do nothing but tip its cap when Rajon Rondo explodes for a triple-double or Kevin Garnett wreaks havoc in the paint. But when the likes of Shane Battier, Mario Chalmers, Keyon Dooling, and Mickael Pietrus swing the momentum of a game in their team's favor with a timely shot or a defensive spark, they become the easiest heroes to root for, and the other side's most frustrating villains.
The Celtics were left pretty frustrated as they dropped Thursday's Game 6, 98-79, as the Heat were given an early lift from their supporting staff -- even in the midst of James beginning a 45-point night -- while Boston was left waiting for its backup like a commuter having missed the last train. Help wasn't on the way.
Through three quarters on Thursday night -- the only relevant quarters -- Boston's bench contributed two points. Two. Dos. A mere pair. They came via Pietrus, but were not able to spark any greater Boston run as it chipped away at a double-digit deficit. Pietrus finished with two points, missing all three of his 3-point field goal attempts. Dooling wasn't far off, coming up with a goose egg in the scoring column in 15 minutes. Meanwhile, Battier and Chalmers combined for 17 points, including eight in the opening quarter alone -- exactly half of the Celtics' team total in the first frame.
"We contributed in a lot of different categories, just not necessarily in the scoring category today," Dooling said of the bench. "[Miami's] defense was so good tonight, I think it was hard for us to score."
Celtics coach Doc Rivers has stressed that it's not necessarily scoring that's most important for Boston's bench, but it certainly wouldn't hurt the cause.
"I think the bench is what it's been all year," said Rivers. "I think for our bench, it depends on what you're looking at. If you're looking at offense, then, yes, it's sporadic. If you're looking at defensively, it's pretty consistent. Our bench is a defensive bench. When they give us points, that's great. But when they come in with great energy and change the tempo of the game, they're having an impact on our team as well. And that's what we look for in our team."
But it was hard to watch the bench not score Thursday, as memories of two clutch fourth quarter 3-pointers from Pietrus, and a late third quarter triple from Dooling in Game 5 danced in the heads of a very giving TD Garden crowd on Thursday.
"We didn't come out with the right energy," Pietrus admitted. "Our energy was low, but it's going to be like that sometimes. You have to keep your head up and stay positive. Good things happen when you stay positive."
And when you hit timely shots. Sure, the Celtics will need Kevin Garnett and Paul Pierce -- who combined to shoot 10-of-32 Thursday night -- to play far better on Saturday, but they'll also need Dooling, Pietrus, Brandon Bass, and maybe even Marquis Daniels to contribute something to the cause -- a comeback-inducing 3-pointer, a sharp cut to the basket for a layup that extends the lead, a dagger of a trifecta that halts a Miami run.
These players hold an undeniable power. They can cover up for a star's lackluster evening; they can latch onto the momentum produced by a star's stellar outing; and perhaps most importantly, they can be the dagger -- the open man in the corner who hits the shot when the double-team pins the star down. The Celtics saw what having that as part of their arsenal was like in Game 5, and then witnessed the unfortunate side effects of not having that at their disposal for Game 6.
With their season once again on the brink on Saturday, the Celtics will look to their stars to carry them. But their gaze won't be fully detracted from Pietrus, Dooling, and the rest of the role player platoon. For they also have the power to help propel the Celtics into the NBA Finals.
The second-unit combination of Allen, Avery Bradley, Sasha Pavlovic, Kevin Garnett and Greg Stiemsma combined to outscore Philadelphia by 19 points in Sunday night's 103-79 triumph at TD Garden. It was that group that stretched a 3-point first-quarter edge into as much as a 19-point second-quarter cushion, then came back as a unit in the fourth quarter and slammed the door on the 76ers.
Overall, that second unit outscored Philadelphia 27-6 in 11:59 of floor time. All this coming one night after outscoring the Pacers 21-7 during 11 minutes of action, highlighted by a similar start to the second quarter in which Boston built a double-digit lead.
Sure, the Celtics have found a nice offensive rhythm with the unit, particularly with Allen as the focal point. But over the first six minutes of the second quarter in each of those games, opponents were a combined 1-of-24 shooting (Indiana was 0-for-11, Philly was 1-for-13).
"The last two games, really, the defense has been just great intensity," Celtics coach Doc Rivers said. "I thought we had active hands. I thought the second unit in the second quarter was as good as you can get."
Echoed captain Paul Pierce, "I thought the first unit set an offensive tone, but the second unit really set the defensive tone in the second quarter. It was really an offensive battle, but the second unit came in and really set the tone defensively, holding them down, building up a lead, and we just never looked back."
"We worked on everything," Chris Wilcox said after practice at the Celtics Training Center at HealthPoint on Monday. "We worked on our chemistry, our game timing, and we just went hard. We played a couple of games to get our bodies right, get our chemistry down -- it was a good workout yesterday."
"We had 10 to play, and we came in, we played hard, and we got after it. And I think it kind of turned over to today. We had a good practice today, the second unit's starting to get [its] chemistry back, and it was good for us."
That coveted chemistry has been difficult to develop for a bench that hasn't played a significant number of minutes together as a unit, separate from the starters. Celtics coach Doc Rivers -- whether due to injuries, foul trouble, early deficits or just personal choice -- has so far elected to keep one of his starters intermingled with the bench brigade through much of the first eight games of the season. According to Basketball Value, the Celtics' most frequently used all-reserve unit this season, consisting of Avery Bradley, Keyon Dooling, Marquis Daniels, Brandon Bass and Chris Wilcox, has logged a shade under seven total minutes of court time.
It's no wonder chemistry is a primary focus for the group.
"We're just trying to build some continuity, build some trust, build some cohesiveness as a unit," Dooling said. "Right now, we haven't had a lot of practice time, so we needed that. [Sunday] was good for us from a conditioning standpoint as well as just from a continuity standpoint."
So maybe it'd come as a small surprise to hear Doc Rivers report that white dominated the early days of training camp. Things seem to have evened up a bit since then and Rivers detailed Tuesday how the Green had dominated the most recent session. In fact, looking to give White a confidence boost, Rivers set up a one-play finish to Tuesday's session.
"We challenged [White] because Green had a good day," said Rivers. "So we were praying that White scored on an [after timeout play] at the end of the practice, just so they could say something to Green."
Chris Wilcox delivered a two-handed baseline jam before Kevin Garnett could shuffle over to defend the rim and Rivers delivered high-5s to the reserves as the team huddled to close practice (all while Garnett and the starters were seething).
"[White] did [score on Green], but trust me, it wasn’t the play we ran -- I can tell you that," joked Rivers. "That was nowhere near what I drew up. I don’t know what happened. But they got a dunk out of it, so that was good."
The Celtics are hoping for increased contributions from an overhauled bench and the inspired play by a White team headlined by the likes of Keyon Dooling, Marquis Daniels, Chris Wilcox, and Brandon Bass has Boston confident it can get more from the reserves than it did a year ago.
"Every year you try to build your bench and some years we’ve been successful, and some years we haven’t. Last year, we failed miserably," said Rivers. "The bench didn’t save us, ever -- it lost some games for us, but it didn’t save us a lot. This bench, the one thing I do like, they’re not going to back down. That doesn’t mean they're going to play well, but they are a tough group. They respect the starters, but that’s about it. That’s all they’re getting."
The Green has been getting a handful from the White this preseason. Better yet, Rivers likes how members of the White squad seem to understand their roles and aren't secretly daydreaming of their chance to run with Green.
"[The bench is] role players understanding they are role players," said Rivers. "We’ve got a group of guys that clearly know who they are. They are also very comfortable in that. They think they can play as well as the starters, but they accept where they are at."
The C's are still looking for their first full 48-minute team effort of the playoffs -- the one they're convinced will result in something other than a last-second, nail-biting victory. So far, the starters have done the heavy lifting, occasionally glancing back to see if the reserves are interested in relieving them of their duties for an extended stretch or two.
The Celtics were ready to lean on their starting five of Rajon Rondo, Ray Allen, Paul Pierce, Kevin Garnett, and Jermaine O'Neal, but perhaps not to the extent they've needed to through two games. In Game 1, the starters accounted for 79 of Boston's 87 points, 36 of its 44 rebounds, and 17 of its 20 assists. Game 2 was only marginally better with the first five producing 82 of 96 points, 26 of 37 rebounds, and 18 of 21 assists.
"Listen, that’s why it’s such a team game," Celtics coach Doc Rivers said after the team held a brief film session at the Sports Authority Training Center at HealthPoint on Wednesday. "Sometimes your bench plays well and your starters don’t. It’s never going to be perfect, we know that. And when that happens, it puts more pressure on your starters and they just have to come through for you. There will be a game in this series, where a couple of our starters won’t play well and somebody on our bench will step up. Just the nature of the beast."
--HEALTHY BODIES LEADING TO HEALTHY RETURNS FOR BOSTON BENCH--
Knowing the second unit hasn't been great at keeping opponents off the scoreboard, it was interesting to watch Celtics coach Doc Rivers sub in his reserves as the Philadelphia 76ers cut their deficit to four late in the third quarter Tuesday.
Boston not only pushed that lead back up to 10 before the end of the third quarter, but eyebrows shot skyward when Allen and a second-unit lineup featuring Davis, Delonte West, Jeff Green and Nenad Krstic held the 76ers scoreless over a four-minute, seven-possession stretch near the start of the fourth quarter, allowing Boston to extend its lead to 14 before the starters trickled back in.Howard Smith/US PresswireRay Allen provides stability with a new and improved second unit for the Celtics.
Yes, the Celtics might have finally uncovered second-unit gold with a starter-light crew that can hold the fort while Boston's heavy hitters get extended rest (even at age 35, Allen seems able to play any amount of minutes). Kevin Garnett played only 24 minutes Tuesday, while starting center Jermaine O'Neal logged just 12:32.
"[The reserve unit] was huge for us," admitted Rivers. "And listen, we're getting healthier, so our bench is starting to resemble a bench. That's good."
--C'S NEED MORE FROM END OF THE BENCH--
If the Boston Celtics are to make a late-season push for a top seed in the East -- something that would make the path back to the NBA Finals a little less daunting -- and preserve its core for the rigors of the postseason, it's up to the end of the Celtics' bench to establish itself over the final nine games.
It's painfully obvious Boston needs more from the end of its bench. These players weren't brought in with the idea of being playoff contributors -- save maybe for an emergency situation -- but they were pegged to help the Celtics get to the finish line of the regular season and earn a top seed in the process.
--BENCH COULD BE DIFFERENCE FOR CELTICS--
It's no coincidence that Boston's bench has begun to thrive at the very moment that, not only are Delonte West and Glen Davis healthy, but key deadline acquisition Jeff Green is finding his role as bench spark plug. Boston players still get weak-kneed thinking about how this bench might further develop when the O'Neals (and Von Wafer, too) get healthy (which is likely to push offensive-minded center Nenad Krstic to the second unit). But maybe most encouraging is that Boston's bench is starting to put it together regardless of how the reserves are utilized. In what amounted to a must-win situation after dropping the front end of a back-to-back in Houston on Friday, the Celtics leaned on a playoff-like three-man unit of West, Davis and Jeff Green on Saturday in New Orleans. Against the Pacers on Wednesday, Boston used its entire seven-man bench unit, mixing in healthy doses of Carlos Arroyo and Troy Murphy (along with cameos from Avery Bradley and Sasha Pavlovic).
While it happened Friday in part because the Big Four of Rajon Rondo, Kevin Garnett, Paul Pierce, and Ray Allen had one of their lowest combined output of the Big Three era (33 total points), it's the new 1-2 punch of Glen Davis and Jeff Green off the pine (mix in Delonte West and you may even have a bench Big Three) that's helping Boston's bench output.
We have a story on the Boston bench that will be posted on ESPN Boston later on Sunday, but for now, courtesy of ESPN researchers, here's a look at the last five games in which the Celtics' reserves have outscored the starters (with date, totals for each unit, and result):
--MAY: BENCH 2.0 SHOWS PROMISING SIGNS FOR C'S--
There may yet come a time when we see an O'Neal, or maybe even two of them. Pending such a grand occasion, when yet another lineup tweak will have to be made, Doc Rivers figures he has finally, finally got his Boston Celtics bench in order. And he likes it. A lot. "They're more talented now,'' Rivers said after watching his reserves close out the Indiana Pacers 92-80 at the TD Garden, keeping the Celtics unbeaten at home against Eastern Conference teams (21-0). "That's number one. You've got Jeff Green in your second unit, Delonte West in your second unit, Glen Davis. Pretty good second unit." Then, as if to state the obvious, "It's nice to see them all on the floor."
--FORSBERG: AS IF WEST NEVER MISSED A GAME--
Celtics coach Doc Rivers doesn't know how Delonte West managed to keep it a secret, but he's convinced West has been participating in an area rec league during his recovery from a sprained right ankle. How else to explain West's precision timing in Wednesday's 92-80 triumph over the Indiana Pacers, only his ninth appearance of the season and his first game back after a nearly three-week absence.
* Related links: Green provides spark | Murphy's dunk | The Association: Episode 4
Boston's reserves have struggled to maintain leads and Rivers frequently has kept a starter on the court with them to prevent lapses. But playing without Rajon Rondo and adamant about limiting minutes for the Big Three, Rivers sent out the untested collection in a two-point game and crossed his fingers.
He was rewarded with inspired defensive play from a group clearly lacking offensive firepower. So even though the shots of Boston's reserves didn't fall, neither did attempts by New Jersey. And by the time Kevin Garnett capped the trickle of starters returning to the floor with 5:43 to play in the half, Boston boasted a 13-point cushion that only grew from there en route to a breezy 100-75 triumph at the Prudential Center.
"We were going to rest our guys and I told our coaches, 'Hey, put your seatbelts on,'" said Rivers, who managed to keep captain Paul Pierce on the bench for the final 12:08 of the first half. "No matter what the score was we had to give our guys a blow. And [the reserves] came in and they changed the tempo, defensively, of the game."
The Nets didn't score a basket for the first 4:27 of the second quarter and settled for six total points over the first 11:06 of the period. Boston ultimately outscored New Jersey 30-12 in the quarter, allowing for an easy win that featured many of those same reserves logging valuable floor time in a perfunctory fourth quarter.
"I thought the second unit in the second quarter changed the whole game," Rivers said. "We went five possessions without a score … but the other team didn't score. It was really good for them to see that. You don't have to score if you keep getting stops. Eventually the dam will break and you'll start scoring. And it happened for them.
Click HERE for the full story.
--BENCH RESPONDS TO CHALLENGE, TURNS GAME AROUND--
Under fire for lackluster efforts in recent games and shorthanded by injuries, the Boston bench responded with perhaps its best performance of the season, helping the Celtics turn Tuesday's game around. Boston came out flat and, hindered by early foul trouble for Paul Pierce, let the Cavaliers build a seven-point cushion. Even with that hole, Rivers leaned on a second unit comprised of Glen Davis, Nate Robinson, Marquis Daniels and Semih Erden, with point guard Rajon Rondo staying on the floor.
Rondo scored the final 11 points of the first quarter, pulling Boston within a bucket after one quarter. But that second unit produced 16 second-quarter points, highlighted by a trio of hoops (and seven points in the frame) from Daniels. By the time Ray Allen subbed back in for Daniels with 3:50 to play in the first half, Boston held a seven-point lead, which soon soared to double digits.
"I thought the bench turned the game around," Celtics coach Doc Rivers told reporters in Cleveland, saying he spent some extra time with the second unit before Monday's practice to break down its recent struggles. Boston's bench only outscored their Cleveland counterparts 43-41 but that doesn't reflect the impact the Celtics' reserves had on this game.
--MORE BENCH PRESS: DANIELS, DAVIS SHINE--
When Delonte West spilled to the ground Wednesday night against the New Jersey Nets, fracturing his right wrist and sidelining him indefinitely, Daniels got thrust into a role as a potential backup point guard behind Rondo (who was dealing with his own hamstring and feet injuries). But Tuesday's game showed how good Daniels can be off the ball in his natural swingman role. He was all over the court, but thrived in the paint, making a trio of second-quarter shots in the lane to spark his big night. Daniels, who got early minutes because of Pierce's foul trouble, finished with 16 points on 7-of-10 shooting with four rebounds and two steals over nearly 33 minutes of action. What's more, his defense against Ramone Sessions and Mo Williams was fantastic, leading Rivers to suggest that Daniels can be this type of a force every night.
After struggling his last five games, Davis scored 13 of his 17 points in the second half, connected on 7-of-14 shots, and added 11 rebounds, 4 assists and a highlight-reel block over nearly 32 minutes of action.
--CAVS MAKE RONDO SHOOT; RONDO MAKES CAVS PAY--
The Cavaliers came in with a game plan to make Rondo shoot the ball. Trouble was, they didn't plan on letting him take the majority of those attempts from inches away from the rim. At times it looked like a layup line for Rondo, who repeatedly drove to the basket in the first half, completing layup after layup as Boston rallied from its early deficit.
Rondo put up nine first-quarter shots, dropping five of them, and scored Boston's final 11 points of the quarter. Rondo settled in from there, registering 10 of his assists after the first 12 minutes. Rondo made 3-of-4 attempts and added four assists in the third quarter as Boston's lead ballooned to 19. Rondo finished 11-of-17 shooting for a season-high 23 points over 38 minutes. He was the only starter whose minutes remained high, but his play allowed his more veteran teammates to save their energy on the first night of another back-to-back (the Trail Blazers visit TD Garden Wednesday).
--OHHHH, FUDGE ... ONLY HE DIDN'T SAY FUDGE--
The only thing louder than the expletive Kevin Garnett bellowed (quite audible on the TV broadcast) after a third-quarter injury scare was the collective gasp that went up around New England at the thought of Garnett holding his right leg in pain. It turned out to be his ankle (collective exhale at no mention of a knee), which rolled when he stepped on Pierce's foot while chasing a rebound.
The Celtics quickly called time out, and Garnett didn't just stay in the game, he seemed to get inspired, even as he grimaced initially while trying to walk off the pain. A few minutes after the injury scare, Garnett produced a ridiculous turnaround, and-1, banked-home jumper that put Boston out front by 16 with two minutes to play in the third. He finished with 11 points (on 4-of-11 shooting), 10 rebounds, 4 assists and a steal over less than 30 minutes of action.
--LOOSE BALLS: PIERCE & RONDO JOIN CHARGE WATCH, BABY SHOOTING 3'S--
* Pierce played a mere 22:44 in large part because of early (and questionable) foul trouble. After logging just 2:33 in the first quarter, Pierce returned in the second and promptly drew his first charge of the season (fearlessly absorbing a Ryan Hollins bump just 15 seconds after re-entering). Pierce played inspired defense the rest of the night, blocking three shots and showing no fear after the two early whistles.
* Speaking of charges, Rondo also drew his first charge of the year, stepping in front of a fast-breaking Daniel Gibson early in the fourth quarter ... And speaking of blocked shots, the Celtics matched their season high of eight blocks (set last time out vs. the Raptors). Boston now has 26 blocks in its last four games, with Semih Erden contributing a pair Tuesday.
* Rookies Avery Bradley and Luke Harangody got 1:19 of court time to close out Tuesday's game. Harangody knocked down a 19-foot jumper off a Bradley assist with 30 seconds to play.
* You know things are going pretty well when Glen Davis hits a 26-foot 3-pointer to close out the game. (As Davis would Tweet, 'On my momma!')
* The Celtics continue to shoot better than 50 percent from the floor this season, connecting on 50.6 percent (44-of-87) Tuesday. That mark is directly related to high-percentage shots, as evidenced by Boston's latest domination in the paint, outscoring the Cavs, 60-26, in the ink.
* It could have been worse for Cleveland, a town awaiting the return of LeBron James on Thursday night. The Celtics connected on a mere 56.5 percent of their free throws (13-of-23), so this could have been even more lopsided.
Play Podcast Buster Olney and Tim Kurkjian discuss the rosters for the Home Run Derby, Jon Lester's future and more. Plus, Indians P Corey Kluber on his All-Star candidacy and Tigers P Joba Chamberlain.
Play Podcast Buster Olney and Jerry Crasnick discuss All-Star selections and Jeff Samardzija's impact in Oakland. Plus, David Price talks about his season and the prospect of getting traded.
Play Podcast ESPN.com's Mike Sando offers his insight on NFL insiders' quarterback rankings, impressions of Robert Griffin III and whether teams prefer Peyton Manning or Tom Brady.