Late last Friday night at the TD Garden, Doc Rivers sat down in front of a crowd of reporters who were ready to grill him on his team's home-court breakdown that evening against the Houston Rockets. The Celtics collapsed in the fourth quarter and coughed up a seven-point lead, eventually falling 119-114 in overtime in a game they never should have lost.
The guys who were on the floor made plenty of mistakes down the stretch — taking bad shots, getting lazy defensively, leaving opposing shooters open at the wrong time. They earned the loss, no doubt. But it was the guys on the bench that provoked more questions than anyone.
Why was Marquis Daniels, a key part of the Celtics' bench a month or two ago, watching from his seat for all but six minutes? Why did Nate Robinson, a key acquisition at the trading deadline six weeks ago, play just nine minutes? How did Tony Allen, an afterthought on the Celtics' roster not long ago, steal both of their jobs?
It wasn't rocket science. The Celtics' coach had a simple concept to explain to the crowd of reporters, and he put in terms that they could easily grasp.
"He deserved it," Rivers said. "It's just like in your business — if you write crappy articles long enough, somebody will replace you. You know what I mean? This is no different. When a guy does a job better than someone else, the other guy plays. It's not a conspiracy or anything, it's just a way of life.
"Right now, Tony is playing really well. Shoot, I thought he singlehandedly got us back into the game with his effort and his defense. He's been sensational. He's going to play. Whether Marquis plays or Nate doesn't play, one of them isn't playing, but, right now, Tony's playing. Because he plays hard."
Since that night, we've seen nothing to indicate that Rivers is changing his mind. He's since given Allen shifts of 18, 16 and 15 minutes in the Celtics' last three games. Robinson, meanwhile, has had one 13-minute game and a pair of DNPs. Daniels has had it even worse, seeing the floor for a total of 26 seconds.
"They'll have their day, too," Rivers said this week. "They'll play in the playoffs. And in the rest of the regular season, there will be games where you're going to need them. That's how this team's built. We'll use who we need to use in that given game to win that game."
To a longtime Celtics fan, it's almost baffling to see Tony Allen on the court in a big moment in a late-season game. T.A. is known more for his countless injuries over the years (bad knees, torn thumb ligament, sprained ankle, the list goes on) than his play. But all of a sudden, he has become a big part of the Celtics' rotation in the last eight games, emerging as a key defensive stopper against guys like Carmelo Anthony, Manu Ginobili and LeBron James.
He's come a long way. And it hasn't always been easy.
"It's like when you're in school," Allen said. "You take tests, quizzes. I think I've been getting quizzed all year, just being in games and situations that had an effect long-term. I passed some of those tests, and it's paying off right now."
He knows his role, and he's not trying to make this increase in playing time into more than it is. He knows exactly how to help these Celtics win.
"I approach each game as a defender," Allen said. "Although I know I can score, and I take advantage of the opportunities that are there to score, basically just doing it within the offense. That'll keep me on the court longer. I'm not trying to do too much. I know that I'm out there with Ray Allen and Kevin Garnett and Paul Pierce, and those are our primary scorers. So I've just got to feed off of those guys. And I think that's what getting me these opportunities right now. It's me understanding that."
On the Celtics, these things come and go. You can be a key sixth man one week, and riding pine the next. Whether it's T.A., or Daniels, or Robinson, or Glen Davis, or Brian Scalabrine, they all know what they're in for when they enlist with this Celtics bench. It's a whole lot of uncertainty.
For now, T.A. is enjoying his day in the sun. And as for Daniels and Robinson, they've still got work to do.
"Their role is just to keep working every day in practice," Rivers said. "There will be a day and a time when you're going to need them. Someone will get in foul trouble, or someone might not be playing well."
Doc likes to keep everyone guessing. Often including his own players.