Monday, March 25, 2024

How Celtics' bench has proven their worth even late in the regular season

The Celtics are 57-14 and have officially not only clinched a playoff berth weeks ago, but now have also secured the Eastern Conference's top seed with 11 games remaining in the regular season.

With arguably the best starting-five in the NBA, Boston may also have one of the more deeper benches in the league as well, especially if you've been paying attention over the last month or so. The "Stay Ready" group has done just that, on this current nine-game win streak.

The second unit has been able to not skip a beat while the team has played short-handed recently. Kristaps Porziņgis has missed six games during this stretch, while Jrue Holiday has missed five. Jaylen Brown, Al Horford have each missed three and Jayson Tatum has missed two, with even Derrick White sitting out once. And still, the Celtics have won their past nine games by 155 combined points for an 18.8 average net rating.

Boston on a second night of a back-to-back, which owns a league-best 10-2 record, beat the Bulls 124-113 this past Saturday without three starters (Brown, Porzingis and Holiday) in the lineup. Chicago guard Coby White spoke to reporters afterwards about how the C's sustain their level of play despite who's on the floor.
"It don't really matter who plays for them," White said in his postgame comments. "They all play very well together. They stick to their identity."
Al Horford and Sam Hauser each scored 23 points respectively in a starting role, while Payton Prichard netted 15 points, and handed out eight assists off the bench. Luke Kornet also chipped in eight points, 13 rebounds, four assists and two blocks as a starter against the Bulls.
We're just hungry for more," Hauser said in his postgame presser. "We live for these moments. When some guys are down with injury, you get a chance to show what you can do. As a competitor, you thrive for that, and you’re motivated in those types of games.
Hauser, who was on the verge of making league history last Sunday in the Celtics' 130-104 victory over the Wizards a week ago when he dropped a career-high 30 points on 10-of-13 from 3-point range before an ankle injury sidelined him midway through the third quarter, has hit 21 3-pointers over his last three games -- setting a franchise record for the most 3s made in a three-game stretch and surpassing Jayson Tatum (19 in January).
"Teammates are finding me when I'm open," Hauser said. "I'm trying to get into windows, and try to set myself up for success."
The sharpshooter is averaging a career-best 8.7 points on 43.9% from behind the arc (sixth in the league), while connecting on 50% on corner 3-point attempts so far this season, which has been bumped up to 18.5 points on 56.2% from deep per contest over his past six outings. 

Meanwhile, during the Celtics nine-game win streak Pritchard has averaged 13.9 points and 5.8 assists, while shooting 47% from the field, including 43.6% on made 3-pointer, a vast improvement from his 8.7 points on 44.7% shooting (39% from 3) and 3.1 assists for the season. Since Holiday's injury, Pritchard's numbers have been even better in the last four games, which include three starts at 19.2 points on 53.1% from the floor and 48.9% from long distance, plus 6.8 assists per contest. 

Pritchard and Hauser are not the only ones from the "Stay Ready" crew among those making an impact in the Celtics' rotation. Horford has averaged 14.8 points and 5.8 rebounds per game on 57.1% field goal attempts (52.8% on 3-point attempts) while starting six times during this win streak. Kornet has put up 7.0 points on 58.7%  from the floor and 5.8 rebounds over the last nine games, including 14 points and six rebounds against the Phoenix Suns; 12 points, nine rebounds and six assists against the Utah Jazz; and of course his near double-double against the Bulls in this stretch.
"Different people, different guys, are ready to step up when their number's called," said Horford Saturday in Chicago. "We all understand what we're trying to do, how we're trying to play. Guys are just staying ready and taking advantage of the opportunities."
Even Xavier Tillman and Oshae Brissett have chipped in with their defense and energy when called upon when starters have sat out. When the Celtics have a full roster, the bench will not always get as many minutes or shot attempts, but the key to this bench's depth goes beyond just scoring.

Boston has kept its identity on both ends of the court regardless of any lineup that Joe Mazzulla has rolled out. The Celtics are 19-3 without Porzingis this season, 9-1 without Holiday, 8-0 without Brown, 4-1 without Tatum and 3-2 without Derrick White. Boston's net rating with Tatum on the bench (10.7) is better than what the 2015-16 Golden State Warriors finished with as a team (10.6) while winning an NBA record 73 regular season game. 

The bench squad has done their jobs whether in their usual second unit roles or as replacements in the starting lineup. Lately, they have proven their worth with more opportunity and expanded roles, something that might have been in question once Marcus Smart, Robert Williams III and the reigning Sixth Man of the Year in Malcolm Brogdon were all traded in the off-season.

With the playoffs less than a month away, the question remains how the Celtics' bench will fare when rotations tighten up and the opposing team focuses on weaknesses in a seven-game series. The recent evidence shows that Mazzulla has several back-up options that will answer the call when needed.

Joel Pavón

Photo used courtesy of Getty Images

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