All the tell-tale signs were there — the C's were on the road, they were playing out the tail end of a back-to-back, and they were up against a New Jersey Nets team they've overlooked in the past. They were banged up (their two best centers sidelined by injuries, and Delonte West still battling the occasional back spasm), they were tired, and they've never been all that interested in winning preseason games. Red flags everywhere you look.
But the fact that the Celtics prevailed 96-92 in a game that came down to the final minute at the Prudential Center in Newark, points to an encouraging notion — the C's bench has the mettle to close out wins like this.
The Nets, who opened the game on a 7-0 run and pushed their lead as far as nine by the end of the first quarter, suddenly found themselves buried 77-66 by the final minute of the third. They needed a big surge in the fourth quarter to stay alive, and they got it. A young, athletic group led by Terrence Williams and Travis Outlaw instilled fear in the Celtics during crunch time.
The C's responded by digging deep for the youth and athleticism to push back. They beat the Nets at their own game.
While a collection of All-Stars and future Hall of Famers watched from the bench, a motley mix of youngsters closed things out for the Celtics. Reserve center Semih Erden shined on the defensive end for much of the second half before fouling out; when Erden left, the Celtics survived with a five-man unit of Marquis Daniels, Nate Robinson, Luke Harangody, Mario West and Stephane Lasme. The starting lineup put the C's in a jam, but it was the second and third units that bailed them out.
"The starters kind of cruised into the game," coach Doc Rivers said. "They did turn it on, but other than that, I thought our bench, Semih and that whole group, they were terrific."
Daniels finished with a 4-for-8 shooting night and only nine points, but three of them were huge. With 35 seconds left and the game tied at 90 following a 3-pointer from Jordan Farmar, Daniels answered with a big shot of his own, a corner 3 assisted by West that buried the Nets for good.
After a disappointing season last year, spent half on the injured list and half sitting at the end of Rivers' bench, Daniels came up with a big redeeming moment in just the Celtics' second preseason game. He's back, and he wants the world to know it.
"It was a big shot for him," Rivers said. "We want to keep posting him more. I don't think we're getting enough of that out of him. We have to go to him, which I didn't think we did a very good job of. But he has to learn to hold his position a little bit better."
His coach may sound harsh with him, but Daniels has now put forth back-to-back solid efforts for the Celtics, giving them 10 points and five boards in Wednesday night's opener before hitting the game-winning jumper Thursday.
"It's so early, I don't know yet," Rivers said. "But he's healthy, and he's playing pretty hard."
There will be plenty of chances this season for the Celtics' starters to win them games. Paul Pierce, Kevin Garnett and Ray Allen will come up with plenty of huge crunch-time plays between now and June, and Rajon Rondo will take over more than a couple games this year through sheer athleticism. But Thursday night was the bench's time to shine.
They didn't always shine, as their coach admits. But they had the resolve to pull this one out in the end, and you can't take that away from them.
"I don't think they executed very well," Rivers said of his bench performers. "They made some really boneheaded plays defensively. Offensively, I wasn't that worried about them. But we had Luke grabbing somebody's jersey away from the ball, we had Mario going for a steal when we were up three, we had a technical foul — that's not exactly great execution. But we did enough to win the game."
With this group, at this point in the young preseason, the Celtics will take any kind of win they can get. It wasn't easy, and it wasn't unquestionably pretty, but it was a hard-earned victory for a young group of guys looking to prove their worth in the NBA. All in all, not a bad night's work.