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Celtics’ bench foreshadows strength of depth

The Celtics’ 2nd quarter surge on Sunday night gives a glimpse of the dangers of their second unit

NBA: Preseason-Charlotte Hornets at Boston Celtics Bob DeChiara-USA TODAY Sports

After a slow first quarter, the Celtics looked a bit out of sorts with chemistry even harder to come by without their anchor Al Horford who was sitting out with a sore wrist. Heading into the second quarter, the team threw out an interesting lineup of Marcus Smart, Terry Rozier, Jayson Tatum, Marcus Morris, and Daniel Theis. The result? A dominating 40-25 Celtics quarter which included a 9-0 run, Tatum scoring 13 points in a little over 3 minutes, and 5-position switching that stifled a lot of the Hornets sets.

It wasn’t much of a surprise that the unit that had the most success was packed with players that played together a lot last year and had the most familiarity with each other. It also highlighted how one of the greatest weapons the Celtics will have during the regular season: their depth. In a league that puts a premium on shooting, switching, and versatility, Boston not only has all three on their starting unit, but can put together second units that have the same qualities. In this unit, Smart, Rozier, Tatum, or Morris were able to bring the ball up and all 5 of them are capable of making the right reads when the Celtics run their flex offense.

A key part of the Celtics second unit run was just how fast the Celtics could push the ball up the court because who ever grabbed the rebound had the agency to push the ball ahead whether by outlet or themselves and it generated a lot of nice looks out of good defensive possessions.

On this play, Rozier pushes the ball right into the teeth of the defense forcing the entire team to collapse before passing it to a wide open Jayson Tatum who was able to step into a 3 and drain it.

On this next play, Morris is the one who grabs the rebound so he pushes it up the court. A Theis screen gets him a switch onto Bismack Biyombo who initially backed up as if he was in ICE coverage which gave Morris enough time to advance before he recovered. Malik Monk, who was stuck ball-watching froze during this miscommunication which made him a beat late when Morris flung it to Rozier. Initially, Rozier wasn’t going to shoot it but after the weak close out, he let it fly.

Off a Charlotte make, Tatum brings the ball up and initially tries to get a quick entry pass to Smart. Monk, does a great job denying so Tatum passes it up for Theis so he can get another angle for the Smart entry, but he doesn’t like what he sees so he gives it back to Tatum who finally gets it into Smart. While the Hornets prepare themselves for a Smart post-up possession, Theis runs over to Tatum as if he’s setting a screen and then dives to the basket which confused Bacon who initially thought he was going to switch onto Theis. That quick delay allows Smart to laser a pass out to Tatum who pump fakes an out of control Bacon and drains a three.

Finally, on this play, it was Theis who made the key defensive deflection, got the board and instantly threw it down court to Terry Rozier who was ready to hit a trailing Jayson Tatum for the lead.

In each of these plays, the theme was a different Celtic initiating the offense: Rozier in transition, Morris out of the PnR, Smart out of the post-up, and Theis with the outlet. That type of versatility makes it extremely difficult for defenses to find a rhythm of how to defend a team on a possession-by-possession basis.

The preseason isn’t the place to make grand conclusions about things and Sunday night’s second quarter explosion doesn’t necessarily mean that this unit will be successful all season. However, it was an eye-opener to see, considering last year’s team genuinely had no hope of putting points together if Al Horford wasn’t on the court. So much of what separates the contenders from good teams is the ability to adapt to different styles, with or without your starters. The Celtics can play lineups where the shortest player is 6’7. They can go to 3-guard lineups where their tallest player is 6’8 such as their end of the 2nd quarter lineup when they ran out Kyrie Irving, Rozier, Brown, Gordon Hayward, and Morris.

Versatility isn’t just a theme of this era’s play style, but also a necessary component of team building that allows teams to attack opponents in unique ways based on their weakness. Even down one star, the Celtics gave a glimpse of how they could hit teams in a multitude of ways that branch outside their starting five.

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