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Musings 'Bout Doc and the Bench

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A Daily Babble Production

Though the defense wasn't at its usual level, it's hard to complain about much that is Celtics-related coming off a night in which the two less heralded starters stole the show in an 18-point win over the Bulls.  We're inching closer each day to a Perk rave piece appearing in this space, and Rajon Rondo seems to be making a few plays each night that make my head spin.  Those other three starters aren't bad either.

In the short term, the one glaring complaint from last night's game doesn't mean a whole lot.  For six minutes in the second quarter, the second unit played bad basketball and allowed the Bulls back into a game the Celtics should have been able to break open in the first half.  But as frustrating as it was to watch, as far as last night is concerned, that stretch means the Celtics win the game by 18 instead of a few more points, which perhaps will help keep John Hollinger from proclaiming them destined for a trophy at this point.  Bummer.  It couldn't have cost the starters too much rest since most of them sat the entirety of the fourth quarter.

But as managing editor Green17 touched on in his recap, the poor play from the second unit is concerning not from the point of view of how it affected last night's game but because this is becoming a pattern of behavior.  The bench has blown early leads on multiple occasions now, and while it hasn't come back to bite this team much, the concern is about making sure this team is ready for playoff hoops in the springtime.  The bench likely isn't at this point.

And that's why Doc Rivers should keep on doing just what he's doing.  For now, at least.

There is no question that those first six minutes of the second quarter featured a rough outing for the Celtics' reserves.  The Celts started the quarter with a 10-point lead and a lineup consisting of Eddie House, Gabe Pruitt, Tony Allen, Leon Powe and Glen Davis.  By the 5:48 mark, the starting lineup had been restored on the floor, and the Bulls had outscored the Celtics by an 18-9 count to cut the lead to one, which the starters would stretch all the way to two by recess.  Over that 6:12 stretch of lineups partially or entirely made up of reserves, the Celts turned the ball over four times, shot 3-for-7 from the field and allowed the Bulls to shoot 7-for-10.  The shots the Celtics took could have been better, and the combination of open threes and uncontested lay-ups afforded to the Bulls over that span could most kindly be described as agitating.

It wasn't pretty, and it wasn't pleasant to watch a should-have-been-safe lead dwindle.  But what was pleasant was Doc Rivers' decision to let the bench play without using a particularly quick hook.  By the time the first official's timeout of the second quarter came at the 7:50 mark, Paul Pierce and Kevin Garnett had been on the bench for nearly six minutes worth of basketball, and the double-digit lead had been cut to four.  It would have been no shock to see Doc go back to his starters to resuscitate the lead there, but he held off.  Though he brought Pierce back a whistle later at 7:13, he didn't make another change until the lead was down to one at the six-minute mark. 

Good for Doc.  If, as Paul Pierce asserted in his on-court interview after the win in Atlanta, this team's concern isn't with its streak but simply getting better every game, letting the reserves get their run is just the thing to do.

We are in December, and the Celtics are 25-2.  There is no better time to experiment, to tinker, to let guys play and see what they can do.  The Celtics' starters are not going to play 48 minutes per game in the playoffs, and having a productive bench will be integral to achieving the Celtics' hopes of a repeat.  The reserves on this team all have something to contribute.  Pruitt and House provide the outside shooting, and the rest of Pruitt's game is still a largely unknown commodity.  Allen is the slasher and the primary scoring threat off the bench.  Powe is the relentless banger down low, and the Infuriated Infant is a tweener still figuring out how to best fit in. 

What all of these guys have in common is that they need to be able to perform without being scared.  They need to be able to play their game without worrying that a mistake or a couple of bad possessions as a unit will cost one of them his spot in the rotation.  This is a unit that is still largely lacking in experience overall and certainly in experience playing as a group.  This is the time for Doc to let these guys get some extended run, especially because the way for them to get better is to play meaningful minutes.  Not just minutes in the fourth quarter of a 20-point blowout, by which point most opponents in this league aren't all that interested anymore, but minutes early in games, when the contests aren't out of hand and the opponent is ready to fight for every inch. 

The Celtics have a fairly good idea at this point of what they are going to get from their starters on a nightly basis, though Rondo and Perk continue to push their expectations to new levels, which is fantastic.  Given that from my limited understanding of the NBA practice schedule, there isn't quite the rigor of day-to-day physical work being done by teams at other levels of the game, game action will play an important role in determining the answer to the question mark that is the bench.  With perhaps the single best starting five in the league, this team needs to do everything in its power to make sure that it knows what it has with its bench and that it is as strong as possible going forward. 

It would be great to see Doc keep running the reserves out there as a unit through the middle of the season, finding out just how much immediate value he has from the likes of Pruitt and Brian Scalabrine in particular.  From there, it will be time for Danny Ainge to work any magic he can (perhaps a reserve big man, perhaps help on the wing) to fill biggest needs, and it will be up to Doc to get the reserves that are performing well integrated with his starters.  The chances of successfully going with an entire bench unit in the playoffs are slim, and it is the coach's job to make sure that the reserves in his rotation aren't still getting acclimated to playing with the starters when playoff time comes around. 

For anyone who looks at every game as the be-all, end-all in the heat of the moment (points toward self), it's possible to momentarily lose sight of the fact that the ultimate goal is 16 playoff wins, but upon any reflection, there is no doubting that.  Having a battle-tested bench will be a crucial part of getting there.  Testing the reserves now means they might fail some of those tests.  Some nights, they will fail in a way that gives the starters enough leeway to clean up their mess.  Others, if Doc lets them run long enough, they may fail in a way that costs this team a game or two here and there.  If they do that, they'll know.  They will know because they will hear it from their power forward and their captain and their coaches and their fans.  More importantly, they will know because they are professional basketball players who know when they mess up at their jobs.  It will irritate those who obsess over this team when it happens, and we'll do our share of complaining about it just because we hate losing so much.  But it will be a whole lot better to do that complaining in December, January and February than it would be in late April, May and June.  And if Doc Rivers doesn't allow his bench the sorts of tests that it can fail miserably, we'll never learn whether that bench can pass those same tests consistently with flying colors either.

Long, convoluted, late-night-into-early-morning narrative short, now is the time to give the Celtics' bench a longer leash and a chance to sink or swim.  Because not knowing either way won't do us or this team any good come spring.