I've never fully bought into the widely-held belief that the NBA preseason holds no value, and the one we're currently watching the Boston Celtics storm through is a perfect example of why. Sure, these games hold no weight in terms of wins and losses, and the sparse minutes matter little to the likes of Rajon Rondo and Paul Pierce, who've both been guilty through the first three games of lazy passes and flashy alley-oop attempts which have gone awry, suggesting they haven't been taking things seriously all the time. I can't say I blame them. It'll matter more to them come October 26 when LeBron James and Dwyane Wade strut onto the TD Garden parquet for game one.
But for the likes of Delonte West, Nate Robinson, Marquis Daniels, Semih Erden, Glen Davis, Luke Harangody, Stephane Lasme, Von Wafer, and Mario West, these games do matter, for various reasons. A guy like Delonte West is playing so much now because he won't be playing for the first 10 games of the regular season, and it's already looking like the Celtics will indeed miss his presence during that stretch. Guys like Erden and Daniels play now to prove that they can play (or prove again that they can play in Daniels's case). And of course Lasme, Wafer, and West are playing now to earn the right to continue to play with this club during the regular season and beyond.
The past two preseason wins have been credited largely to the bench brigade (or the Boston Bench Mob, if you prefer), as they've successfully closed out their opponents in the final minutes. Sure, they weren't exactly securing a playoff birth or a playoff series with those wins, but we'll never object to those guys earning valuable late-game experience. The bench has arguably stolen the show through these first three games, so let's examine what we've seen so far.
Delonte West and Nate Robinson
The general consensus entering these games was that Robinson would man the point while West floated around at the off-guard spot. Through the first three games - particularly the last two - the opposite has been the case, and it's been working. West has done the majority of the ballhandling, and he's looked calm and poised, advancing the ball up the floor and initiating the offense without any real issues. That's left Robinson to float around and serve as more of a scorer, a more natural role for him. I for one have been impressed with Robinson's assertiveness down the stretch in these two most recent games. He hasn't been timid or hesitant with his shot, and knocked down three game-icing free throws against the Nets and that crucial three-pointer with just over two minutes left against Toronto on Sunday night.
The two work well together in general, and the best example of this came in the second quarter of the win over New Jersey, when the pair accounted for 19 straight Celtic points. On back-to-back plays, each buried a three-pointer that the other assisted on, and in addition to working off one another well, they've both been utilizing the beefy screens of Davis to slice into the paint, which has been vital to the drive-and-kick offense the Celtics love to employ these days.
One move of West's that both looks cool and is effective is his between-the-legs, behind-the-back dribble move that he's utilizing at the top of the key to get around his defender and slash into the lane.
Davis's role wasn't "clearly defined" heading into the season, and maybe it doesn't need to be. He hasn't let it stop him through these first three preseason games, at least. In fact, the only thing that has stopped him was that shot to the face he took early in the second quarter Sunday night as he was taking a charge.
Through the first two preseason games he was perhaps the Celtics' most assertive and consistent offensive player, and that might have continued through Sunday night's game, had he not missed the majority of the final three quarters. We've seen a rebirth of sorts of the jump shot that Davis utilized on a routine basis during the 2008-2009 season, particularly once Kevin Garnett went down with his knee injury. His versatility makes him a prime candidate for pick-and-rolls and pick-and-pops, and we've seen multiple instances of both so far. He's also making his way to the free throw line, by drawing fouls on a number of cuts and drives to the hoop. He took 10 free throws against the Nets and 76ers, and had already taken four when he exited Sunday night's game. Perhaps most importantly, Davis has been consistent offensively by staying within the team's offensive framework, as opposed to being something of a ball-stopper and limiting the second unit's ball movement. Much of his contributions thus far can be credited to his energy level, which is something of a role in itself. Even when he changed his game the last three seasons to accommodate a departed or incoming player, he's still been expected to provide outstanding energy, and that expectation won't be going away anytime soon.
Davis should be a mainstay of the second unit for as long as Kendrick Perkins is out this season. But when Perkins returns and the front line rotations shift as a result, it'll be interesting to see where Davis lands.
Daniels' second tour of duty with Boston has been thumbs up thus far. Through three preseason games he's quietly averaged 10 points and four rebounds. Daniels's game is as subtle as his demeanor is subdued, yet that doesn't stop it from being effective. His offense has come primarily on a number of cuts and drives to the hoop, and, much like the beginning of last season, he's been attempting to utilize that pull-up "tweener" jump shot that he typically takes at the end of one of his drives to the basket. While he has hit a couple of three-pointers the last two games (including the game-winning three-pointer against the Nets), I'm not ready to label him a three-point threat just yet. While a three-point shot wouldn't be a bad weapon for him to have in his arsenal, he's at his best for this team when he's making his customary slashes to the basket, converting short-range shots, and getting to the free throw line. So far, he's done just that.
Erden's been solid for the Celtics so far, and I think that's one of the best ways to put it. Solid. He hasn't necessarily been spectacular (although he did put together an impressive debut against the 76ers) in any specific areas, but at the same time, he hasn't hindered his team during his time on the court. I've been most impressed with his physical toughness, as he's refused to back down from any of the big men he's gone up against. Banging against the likes of Shaquille and Jermaine O'Neal in practice might have something to do with that. His offense hasn't been overwhelming, but he's shown a nice touch around the basket when he has had the ball inside. One of his more noticeable talents appears to be his interior passing, as he's dished out a few slick ones to Daniels and Davis. Most importantly, Erden doesn't seem lost in the Celtics' system, which was something of a concern early on. This could prove vital, as he could be thrust into action before Kendrick Perkins returns, if the health of one of the O'Neals goes south.
The competition is still brewing between Stephane Lasme, Mario West, and Von Wafer. Whatever edge Wafer might have held entering training camp and the preseason (largely due to contract status) has arguably been taken away by the impressive play of Lasme, who, in my opinion is the current front runner for the 15th roster spot.
West's play has been underwhelming thus far, perhaps due to a lack of minutes. Nonetheless, we haven't seen the energy and hustle that was associated with him at the start of the preseason.
Wafer's an interesting case, as, for the first two games at least, he was a shooter who refused to shoot, and he failed to provide much value beyond that during his brief time on the court. Picking up two technical fouls over the course of the first two games didn't do him any favors, either. He did bury three free throws down the stretch Sunday night to help the Celtics earn the victory over the Raptors, but he appears to be fighting and uphill battle right now.
That brings us to Lasme, who grabbed our attention during game one and hasn't let go. He's been displaying the energy we expected out of West, and it's helped him garner more time on the court. He was the first of the final three to check into Sunday night's game, playing the final 9:34, and making his mark by skying for that slam dunk with 2:50 left, giving Boston an 85-84 lead. He considers himself a defensive player, which should help him fit in with this group. We haven't really seen him go up against a supremely talented offensive player one-on-one yet, so we can't necessarily file him away as surefire insurance against the LeBrons and the Kobes of the world, but he's 6'8, strong, long, quick, and super athletic - many of the qualities of a quality defender. His confidence was probably boosted by Doc Rivers suggesting he has a "great shot" of making the team, which served as more evidence that he's the current favorite.
As of right now, Shaq's sitting out tonight's rematch with the 76ers, and a few other starters might sit as well, meaning we should have an extended look at these bench players, and I wouldn't be shocked to see the likes of Lasme, Wafer, and West get more playing time than they have through the first three games.