Different Measuring Stick for Bench, Starters, and Team

Currently the starting unit features three second stringers (some would say at least one third string player) and the resulting blanks on the second unit force third or fourth string players to assume roles as primary backups. As for a third unit, there is none and hasn’t been for the majority of the season. Doc’s quandary hasn’t been who to put on the inactive list so much as will he have ten players to dress out, much less twelve. Usually during these busy stretches of the schedule, Rivers is lamenting the lack of practice time; now even if there was time there aren’t enough healthy bodies to scrimmage. When military units suffer this high a rate of casualties, they are pulled from the line and replenished, maybe even retrained, before being sent back into combat. Yet this evening the brave remnants of this once gaudy team will be in a foreign country battling the Toronto Raptors.

During the preseason I opined that the second unit might be competitive as a middle-of-the-pack NBA team. Well we are getting a pretty close approximation to test that theory and “average” appears to be about right. The problem is that the last time expectations were that low, it was 2007, Pierce was in his prime, and he was surrounded by a bunch of kids struggling to figure it all out. New Year’s Eve we saw Pierce and Ray Allen, if not in decline certainly beyond the crest in the hill, surrounded by a bunch of kids trying to figure it out and two aging centers manning the middle who were supposed to be part-time backups. That team is struggling. Without their offensive and
defensive quarterbacks, it hardly resembles the well-oiled machine that has been the trademark of the New Big Three era. Turnovers are up; open looks are down (well except for the opponents); and spacing, rotations, and help are increasingly inconsistent.

Friday they came out flat against a struggling team. Then they tapered off (Does that leave you concave?) The second unit provided the best stretch of the game in the third quarter, rallying to get the Celtics even. The starters, such as they are, returned and kept the game close down to the end-game. Two down with something-teen seconds left, the two remaining stars took play in hand. The results, one nearly fumbled the ball out of bounds, recovered to get it to the second, who launched a contested shot with 10 seconds left. When that rushed effort was off the mark, the team failed to foul when the opponents captured the rebound, no last chance. When you don’t have a clear cut advantage in talent, you need to play smart and you need to use every moment as well as your abilities allow. This team did neither.

The really depressing part of all this is that there was a systemic failure. The Celtic system has been their ace in the hole for three seasons. They don’t bury teams by making the difficult shots; they win by creating, taking, and making, the easy shots. Ball movement and player movement off the ball, screens, driving and dishing, eschewing the kind-of open shots for the really-open opportunity for a teammate—these are the integral elements of Ubuntu (and the Celtics-way for half a century) and success. This has been the Celtics’ edge, and there is no reason that these same tenants can’t improve the chances for success with a backup cast.

I started this missive to explore a few reasons for optimism. If you have made it this far (four long, depressing paragraphs is a sizeable preamble, and impediment), now the good stuff. Middle-of-the-road teams need to be judged on a different scale than the elite ones. They make mistakes, have lapses, and won’t wow you with overwhelming talent. Instead the payoff is in getting better. Staying competitive, cleaning up the miscues, and improving. Activity is the cure for inexperience. With minutes, and barring crushing failure, the glazy-eyed youth shake off the disabling glare of the head(spot)lights. With familiarity the slow rotations, passes to empty spaces, and reach-fouls for lack of position all recede. Before becoming a well-oiled unit, you have to get beyond being a machine with sand in the gears. Friday’s game, while painful and disappointing, showed a number of signs of progress.

Jermaine played, a lot, and with the starting frontcourt out the remaining big men must eat minutes and anchor the middle even if they can’t drive the offense from the pivot. Luke Harongody couldn’t buy a jump shot but provided energy, defense, and rebounding off the bench. His +18 led the team and was in stark contrast to Big Baby’s -19 as the starter. At this point I have a lot more faith in Luke stepping up to fill Glen’s shoes as backup than I do Davis adequately replacing Garnett. Von Wafer was engaged, active, focused on defense, and cooperative on offense—all in all a satisfying outing. These guys haven’t played a full game’s worth of minutes all season but provided a contribution off the bench when given a chance (or is that forced into action?)

Marquis Daniels provided the steady play and glue for the makeshift backup unit that I’ve come to expect from him. Is there some kind of alternate universe corollary to Rondo’s higher-est gear in which Marquis slows down the players on the court so his deft but deliberate maneuvers weave through the opponents and result in his shot always being just over the fingertips of the defenders? He continually leaves me saying not “I can’t believe he did that” but “I can’t believe they didn’t block that.”

Only Avery Bradley has failed to step up. In his one, count ‘em one, second of play Friday, West was fouled by another Celtic and made one of two free throws. That gave Avery a -1 for the game, a rate of -1 for every second he played, and a projected rate of -2880 per game—that’s gotta be a record, although if West had made them both it would be a -5760/game rate. I’m still high on Bradley but if there was ever a player that needed to get in a full summer and training camp, it is a college freshman shooting guard learning the hardest position to play at the pro level. Instead Avery got none of that and has been going on a less-than-full-strength ankle through much (all?) of the season. Still, it wouldn’t surprise me to see him throwing five minutes of terror at opposing backup points during the playoffs.

Lest we get too optimistic I should point out that Big Baby Davis shot almost as poorly as Luke who couldn’t find the mark outside of a seven inch bunny, took an ill-advised three-pointer that had Doc glaring daggers in the final minute, and really suffered from hurrying his shot (or dribble and shot) as the lack of ball movement failed to create the open looks he has feasted upon as standard fare. Nate Robinson can’t buy a jump shot and hasn’t been able to create open looks for his teammates nor to get the team and ball moving. The other starter by default, Shaq, had a bad case of fumble-itis Friday. I don’t know if he was getting passes unexpectedly or just didn’t wipe the grease off from breakfast but his efficiency dropped precipitously last game.

While we wait for the cavalry to arrive (in the form of Garnett, Perkins, Rondo, West, and Erden—denizens of the training room) lets try to judge our heroes by a more lenient standard. Playing above .500 until at least a couple of healed bodies return is probably a laudable goal, even if far short of what we have come to expect/demand/hope. Take heart in the baby steps of the newbies and feel a bit of compassion for Doc who is being forced to make this up as he goes along. It can’t be easy to look down the bench and pull rabbits out of a hat like your backup small forward at the point or your small forward at PF (just a tweaked ankle away) or your undersized rookie power forward at center (only a Geritol moment from reality). Yeah, I guess those posters who pooh-pooh’ed the value of the bottom third of the roster are rethinking things now.