Irish Coffee: It’s not the Celtics bench’s fault
|01.30.12 at 7:40 pm ET|
After the Celtics blew an 11-point lead to the Cavaliers with a little more than five minutes left, Paul Pierce told reporters, “Maybe I should play a little bit more” in the fourth quarter. In so many words, the bench blew the game.
Not so. A lineup of E’Twaun Moore, Mickael Pietrus, Sasha Pavlovic, Brandon Bass and Kevin Garnett entered the final 12 minutes with an eight-point lead, and various combinations of four reserves and one starter played Cleveland even until Pierce re-entered the game with 3:42 remaining and the Celtics holding an 87-79 lead.
In fact, rarely has any of the 10 losses through the first third of the season fallen on the Celtics bench’s shoulders. Just the opposite. With Garnett the lone starter to play all 19 games, an argument could rather easily be made that the C’s reserves are the main reason the team hasn’t started worse than 9-10.
“The first full month has been a tough month for us, but we are a team of workers,” KG said last week. “Since I’ve been here, that’s all we’ve done. We haven’t really leaned on a lot of the talent, moreso the hard work.”
While Pierce, Rajon Rondo, Ray Allen and Jermaine O’Neal have all nursed injuries through the first four weeks of the lockout-shortened season, the hodgepodge that includes a second-year guard, a pair of trade acquisitions, two free agent signings and three rookies has formed some semblance of a cohesive group.
Few other teams have two contributors coming off the bench as consistent as Bass and Pietrus.
Traded for the ever inconsistent Glen Davis, Bass, especially, has been as steady as they come. Playing all 19 games (4 starts), he has averaged 11.9 points and 6.3 rebounds, reaching double figures 15 times and recording two double-doubles. Bass has played four more games and averages 6.3 more minutes than O’Neal.
“If you know you have a guy who is that consistent coming off the bench and a guy who’s a candidate for the Sixth Man of the Year award, you know you’re going to be a pretty good at the end of the year,” Pierce said recently, citing Mavs guard Jason Terry and Thunder guard James Harden as examples. “Most teams that have those types of players who come off the bench are pretty good teams.”
Added Garnett: “Brandon’s efficient. He knows his game. He doesn’t come out of that. He’s playing with a group of guys who are rooting for him. I don’t think he’s ever been rooted for like this. We praise each other, but at the same time we push each other, and he’s no different from that. He’s falling right into being a Celtic.”
Likewise, playing in 10-of-11 games (2 starts) since joining the Celtics on Jan. 11, Pietrus has averaged 8.8 points on 40 percent 3-point shooting in 23.5 minutes a night, eclipsing double digits in five of his last seven appearances and draining at least two treys in seven games.
“You talk about a guy who can really knock down shots and make plays,” Pierce said after Pietrus totaled 13 points and eight boards in a win over the Pacers. “He’s a really scrappy defender and a great athlete. He’s been huge in Ray’s absence, just filling in that role — being that constant threat from the outside and filling in gaps on defense.”
The role of 3-point/defensive specialist may be a simple one, but it’s invaluable. And the newest Celtics addition understands that value well. “I’m going to be Mickael Pietrus, go out there and try to help the team win,” he said, “and try to bring something to the game.”
Bass too knows exactly what coach Doc Rivers wants from him, and knowing — as they say — is half the battle. “Energy, good defense, rebounding and scoring when I get opportunities,” said Bass, “that’s what I think my role is and that’s what I’m going to try to bring every night.”
Defense is Avery Bradley‘s thing, and he does his thing tremendously well. He practically willed the Celtics to their best defensive performance in franchise history in a win over the Magic last week.
“With him, it’s all about his confidence,” said Pierce. “The more he plays, and the more he plays well, he believes in himself. He works so hard, and you’ve got to understand who he is for us. He’s a guy who can really defend the ball, probably as good as anybody in the NBA the way he picks up, slides his feet and uses his athleticism. If he can do that, and if he’s able to knock down open shots when he gets them, he can be a hell of a player in this league.”
Starting at point guard the last six games, Bradley’s confidence is building by the outing, so in the long run the injuries to veterans Rondo (wrist) and Keyon Dooling (knee, hip) could actually benefit the sophomore guard and the C’s moving forward.
“As a young guy, you don’t really know what your role is, especially because it’s the beginning of the year,” said Bradley. “But now I understand what my role is, and I’m going to continue to come in and do whatever I need to do for my team so we can get a win.”
Sure, Bradley hasn’t yet shown the ability to knock down open shots, shooting 36.5 percent from the floor (9.1 3P%), but his impact on this Celtics team isn’t measure in field goal percentages. His averages of 5.8 points, 3.5 rebounds, 3.0 assists and 1.2 steals as a starter in Rondo’s absence reflect his ability to play a Tony Allen-esque defensive role against the opponent’s top guards while getting to the rim and at times facilitate offensively.
“His confidence is building each game,” said Rondo. “You can see it out there on the floor when he’s picking guys up. He’s having his defense create his offense, so that’s good and that’s a plus for us as well.”
Chris Wilcox and Keyon Dooling have missed a significant chunk of this season already, but both have shown signs of being capable contributors in their 10 games apiece.
In three games since returning from shoulder and calf injuries last week, Wilcox has averaged 7.3 points on 12-of-15 shooting and 5.0 rebounds. He’s shooting a ridiculous 68.2 percent from the field and even rebutting the label of subpar defensive player that plagued him in Detroit.
“He’s huge for us, because he can guard the center position and power forward position,” said Pierce after Wilcox produced season highs of 14 points and six boards against the Pacers. “He’s a very physical player, and he’s a great finisher down low, so he’s going to be a big key for us moving forward as far as our depth at the big man position, especially with Jermaine O’Neal being out.”
Better yet, the nine-year veteran believes he can do better. “I got off to a slow start,” said Wilcox, who signed a one-year, $3 million deal this past offseason. “Injuries held me back, and now I’m starting to get the rhythm. Hopefully I can just move forward from here.”
Injuries have also held Dooling back on the court, although he remains a remarkable role model in the locker room. He was supposed to be an integral part of the bench, demonstrating his value on occasion early in the season, including an 18-point effort against the Heat.
“He’s an outside threat,” said Garnett earlier this season. “Obviously, he can shoot 3s, but his energy and his leadership is what we value here.”
Since Bradley’s emergence, however, Dooling could now essentially become a welcome midseason acquisition should he regain health after suffering knee and hip injuries in the early going.
“At this point in my career, I’m grateful for every second I get to play in this amazing league, but when you have a historic organization like this one, it’s just a whole different ballgame,” said Dooling. “I can’t explain it. It’s just something that I’ve never experienced on any level. The commitment to winning over here is second to none.”
With Pierce and Pietrus solidifying the small forward position, Rivers has called upon Sasha Pavlovic and Marquis Daniels less and less frequently, but both have proven NBA resumes and have demonstrated the ability to still contribute on occasion.
Pavlovic actually started the first three games of the season when Pierce’s heel kept him out of the lineup. He then played 27 total minutes over the next 12 games before Allen’s ankle injury thrust him back into the C’s starting lineup on Jan. 22. Pavlovic took full advantage, totaling nine points and four rebounds. He’s since contributed sparingly in each game, demonstrating surprising athleticism offensively and effort defensively.
Likewise, Daniels suffered through a brutal stretch of five games without a field goal. He has since progressed, averaging 3.7 points, 2.3 rebounds and 2.1 assists in 15.6 minutes a night over a seven-game stretch before regressing to a scoreless night in the collapse against the Cavs. It’s a start.
“It seems like every night we’re getting different contributions from our bench,” said Pierce. “One night you have Chris, another night you have Sasha, you have Marquis, and of course E’Twaun [Moore on Thursday], so that’s what we’re going to need. Especially with the injuries that we’ve had of late, it has to come from a combination of guys off the bench to come in there and fill in that role and step up for us, and they’ve been great at it.”
Celtics rookies Moore, Greg Stiemsma and JaJuan Johnson have all had their moments. Some more than others.
In early January, Stiemsma scored nearly half of his season points total (27) in his breakout 13-point, seven-rebound performance in a win over the Wizards. Since then, he’s made just two field goals. Still, his averages of 8.9 rebounds and 4.9 blocks per 36 minutes remain impressive, even as those minutes become more scarce. With a shortened training camp and little time for practice, it’s hard to ask for much more than the 8.6 minutes a night Stiemer is giving the Celtics.
Like Bradley, Moore has seen his playing time increase in Rondo and Dooling’s absence, averaging more than 18 minutes over his last four games. His best performance also came in victory, as he scored 16 points on perfect 4-for-4 shooting from beyond the arc in the 27-point comeback against the Magic. Moore’s assist-to-turnover ratio is better than 2-to-1.
Johnson has been the biggest project on the Celtics bench, earning only 28 garbage minutes spread out over nine games. His highlights has come in the form of dunks over former Celtics Brian Scalabrine and Von Wafer, but Johnson has made the most of his limited action, producing per-36 averages of 21.9 points, 7.7 rebounds and 1.3 blocks. Because power forward has been the C’s healthiest position, he’s yet to prove his worth as a first-round pick.
“We’ve got a good group of guys here, and that includes our young guys,” said Garnett. “They’re a young group, full of enthusiasm, full of hope and promise and a lot of potential, but they’re good guys, and they work really hard.”
At lockout’s end, the Celtics seemed poise for yet another stellar start, considering they were one of the few teams returning their entire starting five. If anything, it was the group of newcomers that was supposed to hold this veteran team back. That speculation couldn’t have been further from the truth.
Sure, the C’s core of Rondo, Allen, Pierce, Garnett and O’Neal has played more minutes (98.4) and netted a greater plus/minus (+20) than any other five-man unit on the team, according to 82games.com. But 10 other Celtics lineups have produced more points per possession and five lineups have held opponents to fewer points per possession. In fact, Bradley, Pietrus, Pierce, Bass and Garnett have been the most effective quintet of the 20 different lineups Rivers has rolled out this season — and that group includes three reserves.
“That’s what we’re here for,” said Wilcox. “The bench, we know what our game plan is. Coming into the game, we’ve got to bring the energy and go out and play hard. That’s what we’ve been doing.”
They’ve been living up to their end of the bargain. Now it’s time for the starters to live up to theirs. Once again, the Celtics will go as far as the Big Four takes them — this time perhaps with a little more help from their friends.
(Have a question, concern or conception for tomorrow’s Irish Coffee? Send a message to @brohrbach on Twitter.)
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