When it comes right down to it, Gerald Wallace only cares about two things: winning and running.
Since Wallace moved out of the starting lineup, the Celtics have done a lot more of both. Even with their current three-game losing streak, the Celtics are still 4-3 with Wallace coming off the bench, and their second unit is playing at a greater pace since coach Brad Stevens made Wallace a part of it.
When Stevens first made the move prior to a home game against the Jazz, it ruffled Wallace’s feathers. Despite inconsistent results, however, Wallace sounds like he has changed his mind.
“I play a lot better with those guys,” Wallace said after Boston’s loss to the Trail Blazers on Friday. “I feel a lot more comfortable with them out on the court. We just try to bring a boost of energy, try to bring us that spark we need offensively and defensively as a team to get us back into the game.”
While Jordan Crawford stabilizing the starting unit was a major factor in the Celtics’ recent four-game winning streak, the uptick in bench production was no less significant — and no less surprising. Every member of the Celtics’ most-used reserve lineups had some sort of uncertainty built in coming into this season. For the most part, all have dispelled those uncertainties.
Wallace and fellow veteran Courtney Lee were coming off the most disappointing seasons of their careers. Jared Sullinger was coming off back surgery. Phil Pressey was an undrafted rookie. Kelly Olynyk and Vitor Faverani, who have alternated at the center spot in the second unit, had more experience than Pressey but had plenty of questions of their own.
Yet for all the Celtics’ many problems, the bench has been the least of them. Avery Bradley and the starters seldom come out of the game worrying whether the bench will be able to carry the team while they rest — something not even the most recent Celtics teams could count on.
“They’re very good players,” Bradley said. “Not only do the players have trust in them, but the coaches do as well. They’ve been coming in and doing their job, just like everybody else. They’ve been coming in and playing hard on both ends of the floor.”
The bench production isn’t just a subjective thing. The statistical evidence tells the same story. The Celtics are seventh in the NBA in bench scoring this season at 36.6 points per game, up from last season when the Celtics were 16th in bench scoring at 32.3 points per game. Of course, raw scoring only tells part of the story, and the Celtics’ bench was much better defensively a year ago. However, this year’s reserves are outscoring their opponents by a greater margin (1.8 points per game) than last year’s (1.0), and the margin is really what matters.
It is not a coincidence that the Celtics’ biggest win to date largely came courtesy of the second unit. Boston’s bench outscored Miami’s bench 42-34, helping to set up Jeff Green‘s game-winner. (Also, the inbounder on Green’s shot was Wallace, who finishes close games, even if he does not start them.) And if the Celtics’ starting five had handled its load against Portland, rather than be outscored by its own bench 57-39, the Celtics might not be worrying about a three-game losing streak right now at all.
Lee, the lone returning member of the bench who played all of last season with the Celtics, has the widest perspective on the strength of this year’s group under Stevens. Lee popped in and out of the starting lineup last season, and he said the constant flux affected not just his production but the performance of the bench as a whole.
“Last year, we had a bunch of different lineups, people going in and out, nobody really got consistent or comfortable with it,” Lee said. “This year, I mean, he has kind of switched up the lineups a couple times, but for the most part people know what their roles are.
“Roles are more defined. There’s no guessing, not knowing what’s going to happen. When you get in, you know what you’re supposed to do. Different offensive set’s, the floor’s spread, there’s a lot of movement, which benefits a lot of people’s games. I think that’s the most important thing.”
The bench has not been without fault. The combination of Wallace, Lee, Sullinger, Faverani and Pressey is playing at an obscene offensive efficiency of 142.0 points scored per 100 possessions, but their defensive efficiency is a pedestrian 100.0 points allowed per 100 possessions. The sample size is small, but it is clear that while the bench loves to get out and run — Lee, Wallace and Pressey play at a pace of 100.1 possessions per 48 minutes, far faster than the team’s 96.6 pace as a whole — the reserves are contributing to the defensive struggles on a middle-of-the-road defensive club.
“If you’re not playing defense in this league, you might as well count on losing,” Sullinger said. “We’ve got a lot of work to do.”
But a bench isn’t supposed to carry a team, whether offensively or defensively. Backups are backups for a reason. Boston’s bench only mustered 25 points in Saturday’s loss to the Timberwolves, but that defeat had far more to do with Green’s oh-fer from the field and the shortage of front-line defenders to contain Kevin Love and Nikola Pekovic. If the reserves can challenge an opponent by offering a different look or a different pace, then they have done their jobs. That is what the Celtics’ reserves have done.
As the Celtics’ fortunes have swung back and forth between good and bad, they can at least know that their bench has the ability to give them a big run every game. Given the talent and salary restrictions of the NBA, that is the best any team — particularly one with as narrow a margin for error as the Celtics — can hope for.