The Boston Celtics’ 109-102 loss to the Brooklyn Nets on Monday night was, in a lot of ways, the most perplexing performance of the season thus far. It was equal parts frustrating and brilliant, marked by spurts of bad offense and excellent defense. It featured both a horrific third quarter leading to a near-30-point deficit and an electric fourth quarter in which the Celtics nearly clawed back to a win. In some ways, it was a near-perfect microcosm of what the Celtics have been throughout the first half of the season: terrible and awesome and dizzying, all at the same time.
With Kyrie Irving and Marcus Smart sidelined, we were treated to a throwback of sorts to last season, with Jayson Tatum (34 points, 3 blocks) and Jaylen Brown (22 points, 2 steals) anchoring the team on both ends of the court as the Celtics mounted their comeback. With Terry Rozier (3-of-12 shooting, 3 turnovers) and Gordon Hayward (1-of-6) scuffling, however, it was up to seldom-used reserve guard Brad Wanamaker to rise to the task of playing third banana behind the two young wings.
And rise he did. Wanamaker posted 13 points (4-of-11) shooting, three rebounds, four assists and two steals. The Celtics were +11 with Wanamaker on the court, good for second-best on the team behind Brown and Guerschon Yabusele (+14). Their fourth-quarter surge came from arguably one of the more unlikely groups the Celtics could have put on the court, and Wanamaker was right in the center of it all.
I’m not a full-on supporter of the “Boston has too much talent” point of view, per se, but I also don’t think it’s entirely baseless. The Celtics roll very deep with players who could have reasonably expected 30 minutes per night on a different roster and they’ve all had to adjust to lessened roles around each other.
Consider what Aron Baynes has been for this roster since signing with the team two summers ago. Baynes is one of the more crucial pieces of one of the best defenses in basketball over that span of time. He competes on the glass, gets physical in the paint and never shies away from a challenge at the rim. None of these are particularly glamorous tasks, but he excels at them without asking for much of anything in return.
Wanamaker brings this in guard form. Amidst everything else swirling around this team, there’s value to be found in his ability to just... chill. He doesn’t need to prove anything. He can exist in an offense without needing to press the issue and force up shots, which is a valuable thing for a point guard on a team with so many players who need the ball. Wanamaker exists on the periphery; he moves the ball, spaces the floor, and takes little more than what the offense gives him.
Comparisons to Shane Larkin on last year’s team have been tossed about largely humorously, but in reality, the two may not be all that different. Through all the Celtics’ myriad injuries last season, Larkin stepped up when called upon in a season where nobody really expected him to play, operating within the Celtics’ offense and asserting himself defensively despite his small frame. As a result, he became a crucial part of some of the team’s wildest wins. Remember his 16 points in the comeback win against Charlotte sans Horford and Irving? Or his 14 points on 6-of-6 shooting in the win against Denver?
Wanamaker’s performance against Brooklyn felt like one of those Larkin games—an unlikely contribution from a player who never expected to really see the court to begin with. Unlike last year, however, these performances have been more infrequent and that absence has brought to light a noteworthy issue with this roster: the Celtics don’t really have “role players,” per se — they have starters coming off the bench. It’s a subtle distinction, but one that seems undeniably tied to the team’s general unrest.
When healthy, there are only so many minutes to go around in the Celtics’ guard rotation. Irving and Smart are two of the most important players on the team, and like it or not, Terry Rozier won’t be completely excised from the rotation without a trade. Still, Brad Wanamaker has shown some encouraging signs in his brief cameos with the team thus far, and as the kind of player who doesn’t need much, finding some further opportunities for him could help solve the advanced word scramble that has been the rotation thus far this season.
For his part, Wanamaker remains, appropriately, committed to the team’s success before his own. “It’s good to go out there and play, but I’m all about winning,” he said after Monday’s game. “Obviously, it was great for me to go out there and get some minutes and show what I can do, but it would have been better if we came away with a win.”
“I just have to keep going. Everything else will come into place.”