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Irish Coffee: Doc Rivers molds Celtics bench … again

03.29.12 at 2:23 pm ET
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This version of the Celtics bench is somewhere between Version 3.0 and 893.7. I know because I’ve written each time Doc Rivers molds a different group into form, only to have that unit dismantled by injuries.

At the start of training camp, most expected Brandon Bass, Keyon Dooling, Jeff Green and Chris Wilcox to fill out the 2011-12 Celtics nine-man rotation. Along the way, injuries to Dooling (knee, hip), Green (heart), Wilcox (heart) and Jermaine O’Neal (knee, wrist) forced Bass into the starting lineup and left a rookie (Greg Stiemsma), a sophomore (Avery Bradley) and a guy who cleared waivers (Mickael Pietrus) to fill out the reserve unit.

Sprinkle in a way-past-his-prime Sasha Pavlovic, a guy coming off spinal surgery (Marquis Daniels), two more rookies (JaJuan Johnson and E’Twaun Moore) and a little bit of Ryan Hollins, and you’d expect a big old bowl of poop soup that might lead Padma Lakshmi to ask Danny Ainge to kindly, “Please pack your knives and go.”

Somehow, someway, Rivers & Co. are making it work … again. Of course, it helps the veteran core of Kevin Garnett, Paul Pierce, Rajon Rondo and — save for a pair of ankle sprains — Ray Allen has remained intact. Those guys can make a lot of players look better, but they also set an example that leads them to play better.

‘€œI can’€™t ask a teammate to do something and look in himself if I’€™m not looking in myself,” said Garnett. “I’€™m every bit of the word of a true leader — not by the words that come out of my mouth, but by example. That’€™s just me.”

Same goes for Pierce and Allen. Even Rondo has slipped into that role as a mentor to Bradley this season.

“I consider him kind of a young guy, and I try to take him under my wing and give him as much as advice as possible, but I don’t want to try to act like I’m this vet or anything,” said Rondo. “It’s just that whenever he needs me to shed some advice, I give it to him.”

That allows wins like Wednesday’s over the Jazz to happen. The Celtics watched an 18-point advantage shrink to five, entered the fourth quarter with a lineup of Bradley, Dooling, Garnett, Pavlovic and Stiemsma, witnessed the lead evaporate entirely at 66-66 a minute into the fourth quarter — and nobody panicked, not even Rivers.

As Rivers explained afterward, “Really who I thought won the game is our bench.”

Even with a chance to tie the 76ers for first place in the Atlantic Division on the line, the Celtics coach didn’t rush Pierce or Rondo back into the lineup in hopes of salvaging a win before the calendar turns to April and the schedule features playoff contender after playoff contender.

Instead, a Dooling 3-pointer broke the tie, Garnett drained a fadeaway jumper and Bradley knocked down a pair of free throws to stretch the lead back to seven. The Jazz sliced that margin back to three, but another Dooling jump shot and a Pavlovic trey opened it back up to eight midway through the fourth quarter — just in time for the starters to put the finishing touches on the team’s third straight victory.

“It really made it easy for us to close the game once we got back into the game,” said Pierce.

“We have a team that is really about us,” added Dooling. “What we do is build habits and build for the playoffs. This team is made for the playoffs. It’€™s built for grind-it-out type games, and that’€™s usually how playoff games are. We’€™re building our habits, guys are executing their roles and we’€™re starting to get better.”

Bradley has been the biggest revelation for the Celtics. He’s filled in for both Rondo and Allen, compiling a 9-4 record as a starter, and off the bench he’s built a reputation as one of the league’s best defenders as well as an explosive offensive weapon capable of beating opponents down the floor or on back cuts to the hoop.

‘€œDefense is what I take pride in,” he said. “I go in every game, and I try to play as hard as I can on the defensive end. I try to bring the intensity in the first group and the second group, and that’€™s what I try to do every single night. That’€™s what Doc wants me to do, so that’€™s what I do.’€

Even Bradley’s much maligned jump shot has seen significant improvement in recent months. “I’m not out there lost,” he said. “I’m a lot more confident. I don’t second guess anything. I just go out there and play my game.”

“He’s getting opportunity, and I hope he’s feeling like that,” added Garnett. “We’ll be looking for him. He’s a big part of our offense, a big part of our defensive schemes. The kid has worked his behind off to get where he’s at, and I’m happy for him.”

Conversely, it hasn’t been about confidence for Dooling, but rather health. He averaged 9.0 points and 40 percent 3-point shooting in the first nine games of the season before suffering successive knee and hip injuries. It’s taken more than two months for him to play his way back into the rotation, but he’s averaged 4.8 points, 1.6 assists and 1.4 rebounds in 16.8 minutes over his last five games.

“I’€™m starting to feel better,” said Dooling, who totaled seven points (3-6 FG), three assists and two rebounds against the Jazz. “At the end of the day, everybody’€™s banged up at this time of the year, but I think I’€™m starting to earn Doc’€™s trust a little bit more and starting to really find my niche and my role on this team. So, I want to continue to try to execute it every night.”

We’ve already covered Stiemsma’s development this season at length, and should Pietrus regain form as the 3-point and defensive specialist he was prior to his concussion, Rivers might actually have the depth he’s craved in recent years, even if the bench doesn’t look like it was supposed to at season’s start.

“They’ve earned it,” said Garnett. “You see these guys come in and put in the work. Young guys don’t even grind like this. They don’t even come in and work like this, so it’s good to see, man. It’s refreshing to be honest.”

“Before the season I thought we could [make a run in the playoffs], beginning of the season I wasn’t so sure, and now I do,” Rivers told Dennis & Callahan on Thursday morning. “And again, for us — and actually for everyone — you have to be healthy. You just have to be healthy. I do think we all forget the one thing that is good is we rest more in the playoffs. In the playoffs the games are harder, but the rest is more.”

Just imagine how rested the Celtics could be if the bench continues to sustain leads like they did on Wednesday.

(Have a question, concern or conception for tomorrow’€™s Irish Coffee? Send a message to @brohrbach on Twitter.)

Read More: Avery Bradley, Boston Celtics, Greg Stiemsma, Kevin Garnett
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