Through the first week of the 2023-24 NBA season, the Boston Celtics have gone undefeated. Strong performances from the new-look starting five have helped to propel Boston to three straight wins — two of which came against other projected Eastern Conference Playoff teams in the New York Knicks and Miami Heat.
Jayson Tatum, Jaylen Brown, Kristaps Porzingis, Derrick White, and Jrue Holiday have combined to score an average of 102.7 points per game so far. As a team, the Celtics have only averaged 117.7 points total.
Simple math will tell you that they haven’t gotten a whole lot from their bench early on this year. Al Horford has been the leading scorer of the reserves, posting 5.3 points per contest. The bench as a whole has been a net negative, with a collective plus/minus of -2.1. They’re dead last in scoring and overall efficiency. Plus, they hold the league’s second-worst three-point percentage. Fortunately, it hasn’t even mattered. Boston has been able to get the job done in all three of their early matchups, despite a few scares along the way.
However, it’s tough to imagine that the Cs will be able to ride their ultra-productive starting five forever. At some point, they’re going to need Sam Hauser, Payton Pritchard, and the rest of the fellas to give them something off of the bench. That something doesn’t even have to be anything crazy, they just need to be able to thrive at what they’re great at — whether it’s shooting, defense, or both.
You would’ve thought that Monday’s blowout in Washington would’ve been a prime “get right” spot for the reserves. They had plenty of wiggle room and time to get comfortable, as Boston’s lead ballooned to as wide as 37 points. Instead, they absolutely melted when they were given the reins in the fourth quarter, where they were outscored by 14 points.
This sort of thing shouldn’t be happening. Sure, it’s a nitpick, but it’s not like there isn’t any talent on the bench for Boston.
Throughout the course of the preseason, Pritchard was looking like he was primed for a breakout season in Boston. He averaged 15.6 points per game on 44.4/36.2 shooting splits. The 25-year-old showed that he was capable of being a creator for the Cs off the bench, but hasn’t been able to follow through on that display in the extremely small sample size we’ve all been able to watch so far.
Pritchard hasn’t been able to buy a basket as he’s made just 15.4% of his attempts from the field and just 10.0% of those from long-range.
Hauser’s story hasn’t been much different, except that he didn’t look all that sharp in the preseason either. The sharpshooting wing hasn’t had his touch and has only converted on 20% of his attempts from distance in his first week of play.
Last year, he was a rock-solid option for the Celtics. He came off the bench in 72 games and even made eight starts. In those appearances, Hauser was able to give the Cs a reliable 6.4 points per game while shooting 45.5% overall and 41.8% from beyond the arc.
The struggles that both players have had are pretty perplexing. They aren’t being asked to change their games or play out of their comfort zones. They’re just being asked to knock down catch-and-shoot jumpers — the thing that they’re best at.
The looks have been relatively clean, the shots just aren’t falling. Below are a few examples — of which there are many — of both Hauser and Pritchard getting good looks but just not being able to convert.
At some point, you’d have to imagine that water will find its level, and Hauser and Pritchard will find the bottom of the net.
If that doesn’t happen, then Joe Mazzulla may be forced to experiment with other options like Oshae Brissett or Lamar Stevens.
The problem with that is the shooting issue won’t be solved with those guys — at least if you take a look at their historical numbers. Stevens is a career 28.6% three-point shooter and Brissett isn’t much better at 34.3%.
Teams will be able to sag off of them on the perimeter and throw double or triple teams at the stars.
The upside to playing either of these guys is that they’ll bring a little extra fire on the defensive end and might even sink some threes to build some confidence.
Just look at Brissett’s season debut against the Heat on Friday. The man came in and scored just two points, yet completely flipped the game on its head with his energy. Plays like the one below gave Boston the spark that ultimately helped them mount a first-half comeback against Miami.
Though energy plays are great, they may not be enough to propel the Celtics to their ultimate goal of a championship. Teams (Miami is a prime example) will look to force them into taking as many threes as possible to disrupt the offense’s rhythm in the playoffs. It’s what happened in Game 7 against the Milwaukee Bucks in 2022 with Grant Williams. Fortunately, Grant was able to make the Bucks pay for leaving him open. For what it’s worth, Williams was a 41.1% three-point shooter in that season, so it was wild for Milwaukee to do that.
Boston may not have that same fortune if Brissett or Stevens are dared to shoot in a big game.
Ultimately, it’s going to be important for the bench to get it together. Make no mistake, it’s very early on and the sample size is very small. But the trend of shooters like Pritchard and Hauser not being able to shoot does not bode well for Boston’s stars.