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In the seventh game of last year’s Eastern Conference Finals, the Celtics starters scored 86 points. Unfortunately, a Ryan Hollins layup accounted for all 2 points contributed by the bench, resulting in a 101-88 defeat. Boston’s bench shot 1 for 4 that evening, and four reserves logged more than twenty eight seconds of play.
Danny Ainge responded over the off season by strengthening Boston’s bench in what was described as a “reload” rather than a “rebuild.” Two Sixth Man of the Year winners were added (Jason Terry and Leandro Barbosa) as well as Jeff Green and Courtney Lee. Terry in particular was shocked by Boston’s bench woes last season, and vowed to help the Celtics bench become the league’s best.
In November, after three regular season games, Terry was forced to acknowledge the slow progress his bench was making. “No question, we thought it would be a lot smoother, but, again, it’s not as easy as you think a lot of the time.”
It took 35 games, but Boston’s bench delivered in the biggest way against the Suns, outscoring their starting counterparts 47-40, and following up with 40 points against Houston.
“They won the game for us, basically,” said Rondo of the bench’s effort.
The Spurs and Clippers benches lead the league with 42 and 41 points apiece. Boston’s bench ranked 19th in scoring entering Wednesday’s game, 20th in rebounds and 27th in assists. While the bench is tied for fifth most efficient (46% from the field), Boston’s second unit has clearly not provided the scoring punch or defensive effort necessary to sustain Garnett and Paul Pierce.
However, Boston has also used more starting lineups this season than any other team, and subsequently has seen different faces coming off of the bench week to week. Jason Terry, who Rivers and Ainge lauded as the sixth man Boston desperately needed, has started 23 of 36 games.
Avery Bradley’s return brought consistency to the second unit, and the Celtics are 4-1 since. Terry and Lee finally have set roles, giving them a comfort level that should see Boston climb a few spots in scoring.
Bradley had not played competitive basketball in seven months, and Ainge considered a few D League games to prepare. By not only playing Bradley but starting him in his return to action last week, Rivers made it clear that the rotation experiments had ended.
Jason Terry will be the biggest benefactor of this move. Terry is averaging 11 points and 2 assists on 43% shooting (36% from deep). Terry had 13 points on 6-8 shooting against the Suns, and has dished 9 assists during the two bench outings. Expect Terry’s numbers to improve as he slides back into his preferred role as sixth man.
Jeff Green threw down a handful of monster jams Wednesday night, prompting NBA TV’s Michael Redd to proclaim that Green is Boston’s “X factor” off the bench. The Suns game marked the one year anniversary of Green’s heart surgery, and he continues to show increased confidence in his body and improved aggression with his game. Green is scoring almost 10 PPG for the season, but had 14 points to lead the Celtics over the Suns, finishing +24 during the last two games.
Sullinger is averaging just 5.8 points and 5.7 rebounds for the season, but is putting up 9 points and 9 boards in January on 52 percent shooting and has emerged as the team’s best rebounder. Sullinger also leads the team in one of coach River’s favorite categories, with 14 charges taken this year. “He’s playing like a madman,” Garnett said of Sullinger. “He’s been on a tear lately.”
Sullinger played 34 minutes off the bench against the Suns, tallying a career high 16 boards in addition to 12 points on 60% shooting. He had another strong performance against the Rockets, scoring 14 points on 7 of 8 shooting and grabbing 11 rebounds. Courtney Lee also scored 14 points Friday night, finishing +17.
If Terry’s goal is to elevate Boston’s bench to league leading status, they would need to increase offensive production by about 10 PPG. To put that in another light: 40 points off the bench last May would have given Boston a 128-101 win over the Heat and a trip to the NBA Finals. While the Suns hold one of the worst records in the West, Houston has been playing good basketball and leads the league in scoring.
“I think it would have been a little easier to swallow if it had been Paul Pierce or Kevin Garnett,” said Suns coach Alvin Gentry. “At the end of the day, it was their bench that hurt us.”
It is definitely the first time an opposing coach has said that about Boston, but it doesn’t look like it will be the last.