The numbers for the Celtics starters are off the charts. They boast by far the best net rating in the league (+23.8) and are a large reason why Boston has not just shot up the Eastern Conference standings, but are considered serious contenders heading into April.
But a little something is happening out west.
The team is 3-0 on their road trip and per usual, they’re throttling opponents with that five-man unit. However, it’s not just been Marcus Smart, Jaylen Brown, Jayson Tatum, Al Horford, and Robert Williams doing all the damage. Halfway through the first quarter, it’s been customary for Ime Udoka to sit Tatum early and use him as a bridge between the quarters. By the second, he’s the lone starter on the floor flanked by Payton Pritchard, Derrick White, Grant Williams, and most recently, Daniel Theis.
Analytically, their numbers are nearly equally as impressive as the starters. It’s a small sample size for sure, but in 27 minutes over five games, they have an offensive rating of 123.5 and maintain defensively at 104 points per 100 possessions.
To start the west coast trip, Tatum & the Tatumettes staved off the young Warriors core of Jordan Poole, Jonathan Kuminga, and Moses Moody in the second quarter before the starters returned and pushed the lead to double digits. They kept it rolling in NoCal with a +8 stint in Sacramento that blew the barn doors off the Kings. And then last night against the Nuggets, the bench unit went nuclear in Denver.
They may appear as this hodgepodge of newly acquired players and young guys, but together, they’ve quickly gelled right before the postseason and shaken off any concerns that second unit scoring could have in the playoffs. Their five-out offense with plus shooters across the board spreads the floor for Tatum to operate as the primary ball handler. Hot shooting helps. Pritchard and Williams are both shooting over 40% from behind the arc.
But over the last couple of weeks, they’ve grown confidence to attack close outs and put even more pressure on opposing defenses. A year ago, it would have been rare to see Williams upfake and drive the ball.
Defensively, they don’t have the length and athleticism as the starters, but they still execute Udoka’s switching principles. Effectively replacing Enes Freedom with Theis has allowed Udoka to buy minutes with Timelord and Horford off the floor and not lose a beat on D as Theis has been steadily being acclimated into Udoka’s system.
“He’s not too far behind,” Udoka said after Theis played over 22 minutes in Sacramento, the most he’s seen since returning to the Celtics. “We don’t have to wait to try to build chemistry with him because he’s been here before. He knows how to play with guys and they know how to play with him, and that’s really it. That helps us a lot, because we know that he can come right in and not miss a beat. When you have a guy that can do that, it makes your job a lot easier, especially as a player or a coach . . . He’s going to be a big key for us.”
With just ten games left in the regular season, you can expect this nine-man rotation to continue. When Aaron Nesmith returns, he might get some run too as player #10. Come playoff time though, it might get trimmed down to seven or eight, but for now, the roster keeps humming along.