So many questions about a previously meek second unit are being answered for the Celtics with every passing game.
Only six teams utilized their starting unit for more minutes per game than the Boston Celtics did in 2019-20. Part of that heavy load was practicality playing out. Boston’s starting unit was stacked with three 20-point scorers and another topping over 17 a night. Brad Stevens would’ve been foolish not to excessively use a luxury only he among the 30 NBA head coaches had access to.
The alternative reason behind the Celtics starter-heavy rotation stemmed from Stevens’ inability to trust what took its place. Boston’s bench ranked second-to-last in points, 30th in 3-pointers per game, 23rd in assists, and third-worst in 3-point percentage. Brad Wanamaker had his moments swapping in for Kemba Walker. The same applied to Grant Williams in Game 2 of the conference semis and Robert Williams III when he blocked six shots in a road win in San Antonio.
Whatever encouraging spurts were showcased, however, offered little consistency. A lead built by their superior teammates always felt in jeopardy. Rather than hope to build on that momentum, the best Boston’s second unit could always seem to do was break even.
“Think about the times in the playoffs when the Raptors or Heat were hitting the Celtics with huge runs (usually in the 3rd quarter),” wrote CelticsBlog’s Jeff Clark in October. “The starters were looking confused and frustrated and probably a little gassed. Brad had to look down his bench and decide who he wanted to roll the dice with.”
“Those guys (Wanamaker, either Williams, etc.) are talented, they just aren’t experienced. They have moments and matchups that they can excel in, but far too many holes in their games that good teams exploit.”
The Celtics made do with the money it had to upgrade the bench over the offseason, signing veterans Jeff Teague and Tristan Thompson — theoretically moving Daniel Theis to the second unit when Stevens reverts back to a smaller starting lineup. Two rookies, Payton Pritchard and Aaron Nesmith, were brought in via the first round of the 2020 Draft.
On the surface, none of these additions significantly moved the needle in the direction Boston needed it to. Hope for further progression by the likes of either Williams or Semi Ojeleye was pessimistic, ensuring the concerns that plagued their previous season would seep into the new one. Only this time, they’d be exacerbated by changes to the starting five, where the absence of two starters — though Kemba Walker is on his way back — would thin out an already scarce second unit.
Yet in a weird twist of fate, the very same alterations that were supposed to weaken the Celtics’ bench have the unit building strength with each passing game. Stevens is using the early portion of this truncated season to see what might prove beneficial down the line. It’s a risky bet that could’ve affected their place in the standings, but the Celtics are 7-3 riding a four-game winning streak with that additional trust paying tangible benefits compared to the prior season. Here are some bench numbers from last year to this year:
Minutes: 17.2—> 18.9
Points: 28.5—> 33.8
3PT%: 31.8 (2.4-for-7.6)—>39.3 (3.9-for-9.9)
These last two wins against Toronto and Miami, in particular, have been the setting for various breakouts by members of the second unit.
Robert Williams dominated the Raptors’ weak interior by grabbing a career-high 15 rebounds in just 19 minutes, including six at the offensive end. He also scored 11 points, blocked two shots, and recorded just one foul.
Grant Williams was similarly the beneficiary of a matchup with a struggling Raptors team. He made 3-of-4 triples on his way to 14 points along with six rebounds and three blocks. He was a team-high plus-eight the following game against the Heat in 28 minutes.
Ojeleye had scored in double figures in consecutive games against the Pistons and Raptors while tying a career-high with eight rebounds down in Tampa.
The Celtics’ starters were a -10 Wednesday night against Miami. Though none of them scored more than eight points, grabbed more than six rebounds, or dished more than four assists, the five players who came off Stevens’ bench were a combined +20, helping claim a 107-105 victory. The shot that put Boston up for good came via a put back layup by Peyton Pritchard, perhaps the biggest surprise of the Celtics’ bench renaissance.
Only Jayson Tatum and Jaylen Brown have played more fourth-quarter minutes than Pritchard so far this season. Without Marcus Smart against the Raptors, the late first-round pick went for 23 points and eight assists and has amazed with the advanced craftiness he uses to maneuver his 6’1’’ frame into the paint and finish among the giants.
Payton Pritchard was lighting it up off the bench last night ♨️
∙ 23 Pts
∙ 8-13 FG
∙ 8 Ast pic.twitter.com/xld90YoKNC
— NBA on ESPN (@ESPNNBA) January 5, 2021
He’s made Jeff Teague’s absence due to a left ankle sprain inconsequential and may have even pushed the 12th-year veteran into the third-string position.
“In a short time,” wrote The Athletic’s Jay King, “he has emerged as one of the Celtics’ most important bench pieces. He won’t shoot quite as accurately from inside the paint as he has so far, but his scoring package around the rim is for real.”
With stars like Tatum and Brown leading the way and Walker’s return eventually down the road, the Celtics have and likely never will ask for a whole lot out of those who sub in for them or are staggered alongside them.
Defend hard. Finish at the rim. Hit 3-pointers. Make the right read off a closeout. It’s a simple checklist for Boston’s other guys but one the raw talent of athletic marvels like Ojeleye and Timelord needed reps adjusting to.
Stevens is leaning into the turnover in Boston by piecing together his rotation on the fly, with new considerations to factor in taking shape every night. Now, with nearly half the team in COVID health and safety protocols, the Celtics bench will be further tested and back-of-the-bench players like Tacko Fall, Carsen Edwards, and Aaron Nesmith will get extended playing time via trial by fire. They’re not ideal circumstances, but opportunity is opportunity and without a G-League to hone their skills, this is as good a time as any. Though the final product remains a work in progress, the track is set up to have everything clicking when the Celtics will need it most.