For most of Saturday’s matchup against the Clippers, the TD Garden crowd didn’t have much to cheer for. The Celtics fell down by 16 at the half, by as much as 35 in the third quarter, and ultimately pulled the starters for good ahead of the final period.
Facing elite defenders in Paul George and Kawhi Leonard, the Celtics offense was clearly disrupted, actions that normally result in clean looks oftentimes led to deflected passes or contested threes.
“They got some really good defenders over there, so it’s not as obvious who to attack,” Jayson Tatum said. “I think the answer is just continue to move and play with pace, and attack and draw help and kick it to the open guy.”
In the fourth quarter, with the game way out of reach, the ‘Stay Ready’ group turned up the dial, exploding for 36 points on 14-25 shooting. That scoring burst prevented the Celtics from ending the game with a strikingly low point total — the Cs put up 21, 18, and 21 in each of the first three quarters.
But the reserves – headlined by Dalano Banton, Neemias Queta, Svi Mykhailiuk, Lamar Stevens, and Oshae Brissett – outscored the Clippers by 12 in the final period, an outcome that was meaningless in the scheme of the game, but served as a helpful reminder that the team’s end-of-bench guys who don’t normally get much run are ready to go when their number is called.
The ‘Stay Ready’ group, as they’ve been described this year, typically get their opportunity when the Celtics are crushing an opponent – and there’s been a lot of that this season; the Celtics have won by 18 or more points 11 times this season.
Twice now, they’ve been on the receiving end of a big margin of victory — in Milwaukee, when they fell behind by 37 at halftime, and last night. As much as the team would like to avoid those kinds of defeat, they do present an opportunity for Queta, Stevens, Banton, and others.
“I give those guys a lot of credit,” Jayson Tatum said after the loss to the Clippers. “They stay ready whenever their opportunity or number is called. Even nights where the game is kind of slipping away from us, they still came in and gave maximal effort. It was really good to see that.”
Neemias Queta finished the game 4-4 from the field with, 5 boards and 2 blocks in 12 minutes. When Luke Kornet was out with injury last month, he got a larger opportunity, but he has fallen out of the rotation as of late.
Stevens actually had his best offensive performance of the season, scoring 8 points on 3-4 field goals. With the game clock winding down, Stevens finished the evening with an and-one layup that prevented the Celtics from putting up their lowest-scoring output of their season.
Neemias Queta ended up with a team-high +/- of +15, while Svi Mykhailiuk and Lamar Stevens each finished with a +14.
The Celtics’ starters, despite their undeniable disappointment with the night’s outcome, stayed engaged on the bench until the buzzer sounded. That’s part of what the Stay Ready group is all about. They celebrated a pair of fourth quarter three-pointers by Mykhailiuk, who has now hit at least two threes in 4 of his last 5 games. He’s also converted on 8 of his last 13 attempts from beyond the arc after a tough shooting start to the season.
And the Saturday night TD Garden crowd, which did not have much to cheer for three quarters, rooted loudly for the end-of-bench players that don’t consistently get minutes.
Joe Mazzulla and the Celtics coaching staff have stressed all season that blowout minutes were valuable and important. In November, when the Celtics blew out the Raptors, Dennis Schroder criticized Mazzulla for calling a challenge with just a few minutes to go and the Celtics up 27. Mazzulla pushed back, emphasizing that he’d always prioritize his players regardless of the score.
“I think at the end of the day, my responsibility is to my players first,” Mazzulla said after the controversy.
Payton Pritchard, after the Celtics blew out the Rockets earlier this month, has also pushed back on the notion of ‘garbage time.’
“I don’t ever look at it like garbage time – it’s an opportunity for me to hoop,” Pritchard said. “These are NBA guys at the end of the day – this is top-level basketball here.”
Payton Pritchard doesn’t like the characterization of fourth quarter blowout minutes as ‘garbage time.’— Noa Dalzell (@NoaDalzellNBA) January 14, 2024
“I don’t ever look it at like garbage time. It’s an opportunity for me to hoop… everybody is an NBA guy, at the end of the day. This is top level basketball here.” pic.twitter.com/Uilv8RQSX2
Against the Clippers, Boston didn’t have much to celebrate — non-Tatum starters shot an abysmal 5-37 from the field, and through three quarters, the Celtics shot 29.3%.
But regardless of what you want to call those fourth quarter minutes, the reserves provided a spark in an otherwise tough performance. While last night, those minutes may have seemed meaningless, they’re important because the members of the Stay Ready group are.
“This is the first time in my career I’ve been a part of something like this,” Stevens told CelticsBlog earlier this month. “It’s all about the process – just enjoying the process, getting better, and not worrying about when the opportunity may come or how it may come, but just knowing that each day, you’ve prepared yourself to the best of your ability. From there, everything else will take care of itself. There’s been great lessons taught to me within the Stay Ready group, and it’s a great thing for the culture of our team.”