PHILADELPHIA — Joe Mazzulla approached Dalano Banton, who sat slumped back in his locker, about one hour before the Celtics visited the 76ers on Wednesday and said two words. Banton propped up in his seat as Svi Mykhailiuk and Lamar Stevens smiled on either side of him. Sam Hauser shouted across the room, “let’s get it.”
Banton pressed both knees on either side of him, smiling too, saying “I better get an extra stretch in.” He tossed a pair of headphones in after splashing some water on his face in the bathroom, then headed to prepare.
Banton later recalled that Mazzulla told him he’d play in the game and entered in the first quarter, shooting 1-for-4 with two points, five rebounds and a steal in eight minutes (+8) in the Celtics’ 117-107 win over the Sixers.
Kristaps Porzingis (knee) and Jaylen Brown (illness) both hope to return for the In Season Tournament game today in Toronto, likely returning Banton and Mykhailiuk (2-4, 5 pts, 15 min.) to the bench after their first consequential minutes of the season. They appreciated how Mazzulla kept them in the mix.
“(It wasn’t) really a surprise,” Banton told CLNS Media/CelticsBlog. “Being out of the rotation, you don’t know when you’re gonna play, but just knowing every day, him informing us guys that are not playing that our chance will come. So it’s never really a surprise. It’s every day in practice when we’re doing our own thing, we’re doing our groups, trying to implement just stay ready, stay ready, stay focused. Wait your turn and when your opportunity comes, try and make the best of it. I was definitely excited … trying to do the little things and make the game easier for these guys. Play as hard as you can, run corner-to-corner ... help space the floor.”
Hauser and Al Horford’s spot starts drew their rightful acclaim for swinging a short-handed effort in Philadelphia in Boston’s direction. They, too, experienced difficult adjustments to deeper bench lineups on a thinner team this year, Horford becoming a bench player every night after starting all but 14 games prior to this season in his NBA career.
However, Banton, Mykhailiuik, Oshae Brissett and Lamar Stevens faced the prospect of never knowing when they’d play period. That’s the most challenging spot on a roster, and one Mazzulla sympathized with as a former assistant coach who worked daily with those players.
Mazzulla entered his second season vowing to take a different approach with the bottom half of the roster. He involved Brissett early and often in the schedule. In turn, he tried to get on the court and rebound for them while they warmed up. Late in games —when the garbage time group took the floor, to use a phrase Brad Stevens hated as well — Mazzulla began coaching them more intentionally. He wanted to make their minutes feel as valuable as the starters’. He also praised Banton’s practice performance, and mentioned that he’d work to find players like him opportunities.
“I felt like we didn’t miss a beat tonight,” Mazzulla said on Wednesday. “Because of the consistency in our development, the way our assistant coaches watch film with them, the program … (and) the guy’s work ethic. The goal is to not miss a beat when you’re in situations like this and I thought those guys were ready to play.”
“It’s only ten games in, they haven’t gotten their name called a ton, but games like tonight are gonna happen a lot and they better be ready because we need them … they all have NBA experience … they’ve all played in NBA games. So it’s not that they’re not really good players … that they don’t have the experience … they come to a team that, this is the situation that we have. For them to stay mature and ready to go is important for us.”
That approach led to a misunderstanding on Saturday when Mazzulla challenged an out-of-bounds call on the Celtics with 3:39 remaining in the fourth quarter and Boston leading by 27 points. Dennis Schröder shared some words with Mazzulla and Raptors head coach Darko Rajaković even got in Mazzulla’s face near the replay table as officials prepared to overturn the call. No skirmish arose, and Mazzulla later defended his decision as an obligation to his players, who he’s often backed up in those circumstances when they’ve been adamant about a call early in the season.
Banton mentioned that moment four days later as one that meant something to the second unit. He entered the Sixers game and quickly poured in a put-back, chased Joel Embiid from behind a poked the ball free from him, leading Jrue Holiday in transition for a wide open dunk. Mykhailiuk hit a three and got his own put-back and the Celtics, for only the second time all season rode that 12-3 first quarter run to a +51 net rating with Tatum off the floor in the win. It marked the second straight game, and only the third all season, where Boston outscored its opponents in the minutes that Tatum sat — powered by a 65 defensive rating in this game.
Neemias Queta sat, although the Celtics activated him for the first time this season following a 10-game absence recovering from a stress fracture. He worked out and looked spry pre-game. Brissett didn’t play either after spraining his left thumb earlier this month. He continues to wear heavy wrap around the injury, but said it hasn’t limited him. That group, collectively, will continue to await their opportunity, which Mazzulla said will come often this year, especially during this stretch of 14 games in 25 days.
“Every day, practicing, working out, they get to see the work that I put in ... Sam being excited for me to get a run is him seeing the work that we put in every day together ... (Mazzulla) never makes us feel like we’re out of it,” Banton said. “He tells us we’re just as important as the first five ... going up to bat for us, knowing we’re playing out there with a minute left and we’re up 20, he’s still gonna go to bat for us, he’s still gonna fight for us as if it’s the beginning of the game. We never feel like we’re not a part of it.”