Much of the Celtics’ success is often credited to their ultra talented, ultra versatile, ultra dynamic starting lineup. Paul Pierce--ever the homer--called it the best in the league. With Kemba Walker, Jaylen Brown, Jayson Tatum, Gordon Hayward, and Daniel Theis, Brad Stevens has the option to draw most anything he wants on his X’s and O’s vision board and counter anything an opposing coach throws at him.
But for most of the season, his second unit has been a work in progress. There was some thought initially that the incoming class of rookies could fill a few roles, but the truncated schedule and extended time off have made for inconsistent development. There have been promising moments for Grant Williams and Romeo Langford, but the kitchen might be a little too hot for a playoff trial by fire.
Instead, it’s been the steady hand of some of the veterans that have buoyed the bench. Unlike the more heralded starting five or last year’s Bench With Attitude headlined by Marcus Morris and Terry Rozier, Boston’s current crop of reserves are more of a blue collar outfit. Before the bubble, Stevens consistently used three players: sixth starter Marcus Smart (32.5 minutes per game), Brad Wanamaker (19.3), and Enes Kanter (17.5). They may not seem like a formidable trio, but they’ve performed admirably in 212 minutes together. They have the third highest net rating , +15.3, of any three players combined (≥ 200 minutes). In Orlando, the three-man wrecking crew sports a robust 31.5 net rating (141.0 OffRtg, 109.5 DefRtg).
Despite their production, they’ve been a maligned group. They’re not flashy. Outside of Smart’s occasional theatrics, are not quite the image of typical Sixth Man of the Year candidates. They’re demolition experts, more likely to tear things up rather than light it up.
Smart is part charlatan, part heavy, a grifter that plays chicken with oncoming traffic. Jayson Tatum recently called him “the heart and soul of this team.” In addition to having the most corporate knowledge as the longest tenured Celtic, Smart brings a wiliness and willingness to do whatever it takes to the game.
Wanamaker is just kinda, well, there. There, like the mailman is always there. Neither rain nor sleet nor snow nor the need to be anything more than a professional athlete gets in the way of Wanamaker doing his job. The 31-year-old elder statesman of the Celtics is a pro. To wit, Brad Wanamaker has the highest assist ratio on the Celtics at 26.1. In the last seven games, he’s dished out 17 assists with just six turnovers.
Kanter’s credentials are obvious, good and bad. He gets foot-tied in any pick-and-roll situation and whenever the Macarena plays at a wedding. However, where Kanter giveth is in the paint. He’s gifted with the hands of a brain surgeon and a body fit for Wrestlemania. His post play appears blunt and brutish, but that belies his footwork in the paint and nose for the ball. Against most defenders, he can get off that bang, bang, bang baby hook over his left shoulder any time.
Stevens has some situational wild cards. Semi Ojeleye has become a serviceable 3&D player. On a wing-rich roster, his limited offense (ahem, he has hit 10-of-23 from behind the arc) affords him only spot minutes unless the Celtics match up against a giant and they need a giant killer (ahem, Giannis Antetokounmpo).
And in these final seeding games, Stevens has found another potential ace up his sleeve. Against the Raptors, Robert Williams replaced Kanter in the rotation. Two nights later, he played nearly twice as much in an overtime win vs. Orlando. And then on Tuesday, he played arguably his best game in green vs. Memphis with 10 points, 7 rebounds, three blocks, and a mature awareness that’s eluded the Timelord since his rookie season.
“He’s an end-of-his-second-year player. He’s way more comfortable with what’s expected of him on both ends of the court. He’s getting better at a bunch of the little things,” Stevens said. “Obviously, he’s always been a guy that’s a real vertical threat. He’s playing very hard and done a really good job in our coverages.”
For the most part, Smart, Wanamaker, and either Kanter or Williams are deployed by Stevens to close out first and third quarters. Those are usually minutes of the game riddled with team foul trouble and bench talent. It’s a minefield, but one of opportunity if you know where to look for it. In the bubble, Marcus Smart has shot the third most free throws behind only Hayward and Tatum. In only 75 minutes, Kanter has scored 45 points in the paint and grabbed 19 offensive rebounds. Wanamaker is staying in his lane with a remarkable slash line of 59-40-90 shooting.
Tatum becomes the featured player surrounded by Boston’s supporting cast of backups. Against the Grizzlies, he returned to the game after a brief first quarter blow at the 2:18 mark. Boston had built a modest 20-13 lead; by the time most of the starters returned midway through the second, the deficit had ballooned to 20. Tatum did score fourteen in the eight-minute burst, but not without the contributions of Smart, Wanamaker, and Williams.
Orlando and the NBA restart are the epitome of small sample size theater, but it’s also a good snapshot of where the team is in relation to its peers. Before the pandemic suspended the season, the Celtics were 29th in the league in bench scoring at 27.2 points per game. To put that into perspective, the #1 ranked Clippers’ second units scored nearly double at 51.5. Since coming to the bubble, Boston has increased their production to 39.6 ppg on over 50% shooting and they lead playoff-bound teams with a plus/minus of +4.2.
In their post-game pressers on Tuesday, both Walker and Tatum talked about the team’s readiness heading into the playoffs. It’s taken three scrimmages and seven seeding games for Kemba to ramp up activity on his knee and Tatum to pick up where he left off in March. Brown and Hayward are also playing some of the best basketball we’ve seen from them this year. But several paragraphs down in every game recap and at the bottom of the box score, the Celtics bench have also steadily become one of the league’s best in the bubble.