If everything goes according to plan, Mickael Pietrus could be back to the Celtics well in time for the playoffs. And that has coach Doc Rivers looking as excited as a kid with a new set of Legos, visualizing the myriad of ways he will be able to connect the pieces to make something fun.
Only instead of a spaceship or a castle, Rivers is thinking about building something the Celtics have not had all season: a truly dangerous unit off the bench.
The Celtics have the second-lowest scoring bench in the NBA at 23.6 points per game, ahead of only the Lakers. But the teams have much different reasons for their anemic bench production.
To put it bluntly, the Lakers bench cannot score because their reserves are not very good. The Celtics bench cannot score because, due to season-ending injuries across the rotation, Rivers has been forced to push his backups into starting roles.
Celtics reserves combine to register fewer than 16 minutes per game, the lowest amount in the league, but players like Brandon Bass and Avery Bradley, who were originally slated for reserve roles, have morphed into 30-minute per game starters.
Not surprisingly, moving Ray Allen out of the starting lineup has helped the bench. But Allen alone is not what makes the Celtics' potential bench options so intriguing.
"We've always wanted a stronger bench," Rivers said. "At least in the last year and a half we've talked about it, so now with Avery and hopefully if we get Mickael back, that's phenomenal. Then you have either guy you can play in the lineup and use the other guy off the bench. That would be the best-case scenario for us."
In the four games since Allen returned from a sore right ankle, the Celtics' bench scoring is up to 25.5 points per game. While that would still qualify as one of the lowest-scoring benches in the league, keep in mind that it has come with Pietrus, one of their best 3-point shooters and wing defenders, on the sideline.
Pietrus passed a baseline concussion test a few days ago, so he soon could be back in the fold.
Once Pietrus returns, Rivers would have innumerable possibilities with his lineup. He could keep Bradley as a starter or slip Pietrus into the starting two-guard spot, opening up the possibility of a wholesale backcourt substitution of Allen and Bradley. Or he could pair Bradley, Pietrus and Sasha Pavlovic in an absolutely brutal defensive lineup for opponents to deal with.
And on, and on.
In the past four games, the lineup of Allen, Bradley, Pavlovic, Kevin Garnett and Greg Stiemsma is a stunning 83 points better than their opponents per 100 possessions. Granted, they will not maintain that level of dominance over the long haul, and even with Pietrus' return and Pavlovic's expanded role, the Celtics' options in the post remain limited.
Still, the Celtics' success in the new Big Three era with go-to reserves like P.J. Brown, Eddie House, Nate Robinson, James Posey, Leon Powe and others has shown that the Celtics are better when they can throw more variable looks at other teams.
Count Garnett as one person who enjoys the Celtics' new looks from multiple lineups.
"I think our starting lineup is now queued more toward being our defensive lineup," Garnett said. "Ray coming off the bench gives us added firepower off the bench, another outlet to score the ball."
"Doc's making moves on account of what's best for our team," Garnett added later. "We just need to continue to play at this level and be consistent with what we're doing."
When and if Pietrus returns, all of this could change — and that uncertainty could be a very troubling proposition for the Celtics' playoff opponents.
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