One of the most common scenes during Celtics games this season, as common as a top-spin bounce pass by Rajon Rondo or a crunchtime jump shot by Kevin Garnett, has been Brandon Bass getting a little lesson in the ways of being a Celtic.
Many times, Rondo, Garnett or Paul Pierce have pulled Bass aside to explain where he should have been or when he should have rotated on the previous play. It is never easy being a new guy on a veteran team, but it has been especially challenging this season given the limited practice time. So instead of getting accustomed to his new surroundings in the traditional way — behind closed doors with just coaches, teammates and no TV cameras as witnesses — Bass has had to ease into an unfamiliar system in front of 18,000 fans and numerous more watching from their couches.
There have been rough patches, but it is almost not worth wondering where the Celtics would be if Bass had not emerged to the level he has this season.
"Being that we have Doc [Rivers], KG, Paul, Ray [Allen], Rondo, it's easy for me to pick up, because if I don't pick it up, they let me know about it every single time," Bass said. "They stay on me. It's been a learning experience, and I think since I've been here I'm at least two times a better player just from being around these guys."
Acquired in the preseason trade that sent Glen Davis and Von Wafer to Orlando, Bass was slated to anchor the Celtics' second unit with Jeff Green, Chris Wilcox, Avery Bradley and Keyon Dooling.
Green never played a minute as he was diagnosed with an aortic aneurysm, and Dooling battled nagging injuries early in the season. Wilcox contributed off the bench before doctors discovered a cardiac irregularity that sat him down for the remainder of the season.
When starting center Jermaine O'Neal opted to have season-ending surgery on his degenerative right wrist, Garnett slid to center and Bass became the starting power forward.
Bass and Bradley — who became a starter while Allen and Mickael Pietrus were sidelined with injuries as well — have jelled quickly, if not entirely seamlessly, with their more famous teammates in the starting five. Garnett in particular is known to be a demanding teammate, but he seemed to understand how a lack of practice time affected team chemistry.
"In this season, with all the games and lack of practice, we're all kind of learning on the fly, if you will," Garnett said. "We've had to make mistakes during games."
One of the buzzwords among the Celtics reserves is "opportunity." Backups always have to be prepared for an injury or other situation that could require the coach to call their numbers, but such scenarios seem to be more common this season.
The lockout condensed the season into 66 games over a span of time that would normally fit about 50 games, so fatigue and overuse injuries have led to new opportunities for players like Bass, who entered this season having started only 59 of his 336 career NBA games.
"Over the years, I just think I've shown growth as a player," Bass said. "I think it shows that in the summertime I prepared myself so that when an opportunity presents itself, I could be ready."
His accuracy on his midrange jumper has edged upward, making his best offensive weapon more dangerous than ever. He is hitting a career-high 48.4 percent of his shots from 10-15 feet, according to HoopData, as well as a career-best 48 percent from 16-23 feet. Bass is also attempting 2.7 shots per game at the rim, matching a career high — a statistic he attributes to Rondo's ability to find him for easy baskets.
If anything, the Celtics would like Bass to be more active in looking for his own shot.
"We've got to get him into a ready shot position, because we've got teams stretched out and he's a heck of a shooter and a lot of times he catches it like he's off guard," Rivers said. "So we have to figure out that."
Few big man tandems are as dangerous shooting the ball as Bass and Garnett, and their shooting threat flows into other areas of the game. Bass' shooting ability spaces the floor for Pierce's dribble drives and provides a permanent safety valve for Rondo if the point guard finds himself under pressure with the shot clock winding down.
"I think him and Kevin really complement each other well," Pierce said. "You know, they really opened up the floor. He works on knocking down those shots every day, and his defense has gotten better of late.
"He's going to be huge for us. We are trying to understand what it's going to take competing with these top teams in the league and he's starting to get it."
Bass now knows what to do and has the playing time to show it. That could help him at the end of this season, when he has a player option on his current deal. He could opt in for another year with the Celtics as an affordable frontcourt contributor, or he could decline the option and try to sign for more on the free agent market.
None of that has entered his mind yet, Bass insisted.
"I'm just trying to take it one game at a time and help this team as much as I can and learn as much as I can from these Hall of Famers," he said.
With five minutes to go in Wednesday's game against the Spurs, Garnett was taken aback when Rivers called him to the bench. The game was tight and Garnett was clearly relishing his post battles with Spurs big men Tim Duncan and Tiago Splitter, but Rivers wanted Bass to take over as the Celtics' lone big man in one of their three-guard lineups.
The substitution was partly made to give Garnett a brief blow before the final, exhausting minutes of what would eventually be a one-point loss. It was also partly made because Rivers thought Bass could handle it.
Handle it he did. Bass made a barely perceptible yet key defensive play when he tipped a pass intended for Duncan, starting one of the Celtics' many fast breaks that allowed them to get back into the game with their small lineup. Among the scouts' knocks on Bass is that he is not a strong defender, and while his pick and roll defense remains substandard, his one-on-one and help defense have improved.
Credit his teachers — all five of them — for the improvement.
"We play Celtic defense, the defense Doc talked about from day one when I got here," Bass said. "I'm finally getting it and we're just jelling together."
There are still mistakes to be made, but they are becoming rarer. While they do, Bass' role gets larger.
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