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Marcus Smart and Celtics bench find success against Bucks

When Marcus Smart fills a bench role around a healthy array of starters, it transforms Boston’s second unit. A career night from Brad Wanamaker doesn’t hurt. Was the night a fluke or trend toward improvement?

Boston Celtics v Milwaukee Bucks Photo by Ashley Landis-Pool/Getty Images

With Jayson Tatum laboring and Kemba Walker limited, the Celtics still mustered 112 points against a historic Bucks defense. In a perhaps unsustainable trend, Boston’s Marcus Smart and Brad Wanamaker bench tandem scored 37 points on 12-for-20 shooting. They outscored the Bucks’ second unit, while minutes from Grant Williams and Semi Ojeleye resulted in +4 and +0 minutes respectively, crucial on a night where the Bucks outscored Celtics starters by an average of 9.8 points.

Boston ranks 29th in bench scoring, with 27.4 points per game compared to the Bucks’ 11th-ranked 39.3. Only the Rockets and Trail Blazers received more scoring from their starting five, and considering Smart’s de-facto starter status amid an injury-filled season, the Celtics may be the most starter-reliant team in the league.

Smart and Wanamaker created a two-headed penetration attack on offense and provided size on defense that hit the Bucks hard on both ends. The duo sported a 111 offensive rating and 95 defensive rating during their 19 minutes together. Their lineups together outscored opponents by 3.1 points per 100 possessions across 476 minutes this year.

“They’re so good at defending the rim on the first drive, their length is different ... they drop back to protect,” Stevens said. “You have to trust the drive and the second drive ... Brad is good in the situations where he creates a ball reversal and close out and then he makes a second closeout ... he keeps the ball popping for us in a lot of ways.”

Gordon Hayward also noted the way Milwaukee slides below screens. He shot 37% against the Bucks’ defense in the two previous matchups, before finding his in-between jumper in this matchup to score 19 points. Walker rode similarly aggressive pull-ups to 16 points, but Tatum’s straight-line drives and pick-and-roll sets failed repeatedly until he ended a team-worst -13. Defending the Bucks is secondary to posting good possessions offensively that don’t feed Milwaukee’s transition attack. Tatum’s 16 misses dropped a bomb on the fire.

Smart and Wanamaker, by contrast, both drove quality possessions and provided defensive ball pressure that handed Boston its own transition opportunities. Wanamaker, ever the steady hand rather than an explosive playmaker, saw Sterling Brown wavering on this play and completely undressed him.

That played capped a run Smart started, taking two transition runs to the bucket for five straight points around a Tatum block on Giannis Antetokounmpo. Then Smart capped his own 8-2 run with a spot-up three. That third quarter bench punch followed Walker’s final removal, and gave Boston its first lead after trailing 17-2 to open the game.

Then Brad Stevens started 2nd unit center Enes Kanter to open the fourth quarter. The Bucks scored seven points in 90 seconds, rocketing back on offense with Kanter planted deep in the post following misses. Milwaukee led 96-89 less than three minutes after Smart and Wanamaker worked a tie in the third. Stevens pulled the plug on Kanter quickly, but the rotation marked a sore spot on a night where Boston’s coaches handled Walker’s minutes perfectly.

Elsewhere, Boston’s bench provided a defensive spark to close the second quarter. Where Kanter provided little in this matchup, Williams played four quality minutes as a small ball center alongside Smart, Wanamaker, Hayward and Jaylen Brown. Milwaukee shot 1-for-7 against Williams’ lineups, he forced a turnover in the closing minutes, before Khris Middleton caught him on a three-point foul.

The group posted a 136 offensive rating and 91 defensive rating in their short run, bringing their total to +22 on the season in 19 minutes (Boston’s 21st most used lineup). As the Celtics search for secondary center minutes in games where Kanter can’t match up, it provided Stevens with an additional look at a potentially effective bench rotation.

Stevens lamented after Saturday’s walk-through that, when healthy, the Celtics will remain tight rotationally. His family calls him, vouching as they did in December for Tacko Fall and others now relegated to the bench: Carsen Edwards, Romeo Langford, and more Grant. When Walker returns fully, even Wanamaker’s minutes will fall.

A shorter bench proved better against the Bucks, empowering Smart and the needed Wanamaker minutes alongside starters like Hayward and Brown. The eighth spot on the bench remains a question though, depending on who the Celtics face in the postseason, and Friday delivered encouraging returns from Wanamaker and Williams.

“Brad is a guy that’s willing and ready to play 28-32 minutes on any given night or 10-12,” Stevens said. “That’s a hard position to be in, I have a lot of respect for people that have to balance that ... there’s only so many minutes in a game.”

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