Celtics' subs turn tide with defense

NEWARK, N.J. -- Buckle up.

That was the instruction Celtics coach Doc Rivers gave to his assistants as Boston trotted out a second unit of Avery Bradley, Von Wafer, Marquis Daniels, Glen Davis and Shaquille O'Neal to start the second quarter of Sunday's game with the New Jersey Nets.

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.

"Avery created three offensive fouls because his ball pressure is so good and that's a good thing for all those young guys. And Von buying in, it was really good."

Even so, Rivers had reason to be cautious. After all, just 11 days ago, Boston's second unit went nearly the first four minutes of the second quarter without a bucket against these same Nets and didn't generate stops, allowing New Jersey to rally for an eight-point advantage that the Celtics had to claw their way back from to post an 89-83 triumph on Nov. 24 at TD Garden.

Rivers knew there could be a relapse, particularly since Nate Robinson had been shuttled to the starting unit in place of Rondo, leaving Bradley -- a rookie with just seven minutes of NBA action to his name -- as the primary ball handler along with Daniels, a natural swingman.

Playing off the hustle and grit of Davis, the second unit thrived.

"We knew what we wanted to accomplish," Davis said. "We want to improve each game and this was a learning step for us. We have to stay consistent. Today, the second team got a lot of reps, being out there and being able to make mistakes and learn from them. We don't practice a lot, so we try to take advantage of every opportunity, every game opportunity. That's what the second team needed, we needed reps."

Even better, they got reps and stops. The coaches made sure to stress how important it was for the second unit to maintain its defensive intensity.

"We came in at halftime and the coaches told us how hard we were playing on the defensive end," Bradley said. "We weren't scoring, but they weren't scoring and that was the main thing. We had to come in and pick up the defensive intensity."

It carried over to the starters, who were cheerleaders during the second unit's time on the court, as New Jersey mustered a mere 16 points in the third quarter and Boston's lead ballooned to 28.

The Celtics' reserves combined for 46 points with veterans Davis (16 points) and Daniels (10) leading the charge. Wafer kicked in eight points over 18:08, while Bradley registered four points and two assists over 14:43. Fellow rookies Luke Harangody (9:07) and Semih Erden (18:47) got quality minutes, as well.

Robinson, who scored a game-high 21 points in a spot start, enjoyed watching what his fellow reserves were able to do, particularly as he kicked back for a fourth quarter of rest.

"They're just playing the right way, Celtics basketball, and it's something we need to continue to do throughout the year," Robinson said. "[The second unit] played hard for every second and every minute. There were no letdowns. We're up 30 points and Luke Harangody is diving on the floor for loose balls and Avery Bradley is forcing jump balls. That's what separates us from other teams, just coming and playing with no egos."

If that kind of bench play continues when the Celtics get healthy, the rest of the league will have to buckle up.

Chris Forsberg is the Celtics reporter for ESPNBoston.com. Follow him on Twitter.