The first Celtics substitution came after Boston shot 10-for-12 and built a 24-9 lead six minutes into their walkthrough win at Washington on Monday. Al Horford replaced Derrick White to create a second unit, double big combination as the Celtics did throughout their first three wins. Boston extended its lead on a 6-2 run, continuing to lean on Jaylen Brown and Kristaps Porziņģis against the tiny Wizards.
Then, they tried to dig deeper, calling on Sam Hauser and receiving little beyond their top-six in the eventual 126-107 win. The teams tied, 8-8, to end the first. Inconsequential in a blowout, but noticeable on the stat sheet.
Boston’s starters scored 100 points for the second straight game following a 96-point effort on opening night. The top-heaviness of the roster came as no surprise following the Jrue Holiday trade and decision to bring Horford off the bench for the first three wins. The largely empty scoring contributions from that second unit did surprise preseason viewers who watched Payton Pritchard break out with some of his better games ever, Hauser finish strong and an array of newcomers flash their NBA skill that could get them on the floor. Instead, familiar faces sunk the Celtics to last in bench scoring with 15.3 points per game through Monday.
Building a 108-75 lead through three quarters allowed the Celtics to empty their bench for the final 12 minutes after only Pritchard, Hauser, Horford and Oshae Brissett logged minutes. That gave Dalano Banton, Lamar Stevens and Svi Mykhailiuk what amounted to a preseason atmosphere in the fourth against Washington’s Ryan Rollins, Anthony Gill, Eugene Omoruyi, Johnny Davis, Patrick Baldwin, Jared Butler and rookie Bilal Coulibaly.
The Wizards won those closing minutes by 14 points, Hauser shooting 2-for-8 from three, Pritchard missing all five shots he attempted and Brissett botching four shots to fall to 1-for-6 (0-2 3PT). Mykhailiuk and Stevens entered later in the quarter, combining to shoot 3-for-4 and making some encouraging non-scoring contributions.
It’s too soon to foresee a rotation shakeup, never mind a move, but it’s worth talking about the depth and construction of the team being reliant on the starters. That’ll work with full availability, Boston’s small ball lineup now outscoring opponents by 31.2 points per 100 possessions with a 121 offensive and 90 defensive rating. Starters will always mix into second units, and Joe Mazzulla said before the win he didn’t consider switching up the lineup due to its success, despite envisioning a starting unit by committee during training camp. He clearly chose the right group to begin games, and that sets them up to close. What about in-between?
Opponents outscored the Celtics’ bench players in their minutes by a combined 2.5 points per 100 possessions, not a drastic number, but their individual efforts amounted to 52 points per 100 possessions (20th), a 50.3 AST% (27th) and a 67.6 DREB% (22nd). They are shooting 29% from the field, 20.5% on three-pointers and have drawn two free throws — in three games.
Boston didn’t assemble a cast of offensive-minded bench players for the bench, in part due to limited resources and availability. Horford transitioned to a floor-spacing role with the starters last year and has only attempted 8 of his 19 shots from deep. Hauser, despite playing strong on the boards and making a few nice passes, almost entirely relies on his catch-and-shoot three falling (3-15).
Luke Kornet’s play might concern many, considering the thin front court depth. Neemias Queta missed Monday’s game with right foot soreness, the same one he suffered a stress reaction in during the summer. Stevens and Brissett focus on hustle plays while Banton looks like a development project for now. Rookie Jordan Walsh did not appear in any of the first three games, expected to focus on his development in Maine early on.
Nobody would reverse the Holiday trade, especially after the Trail Blazers signaled a limitation of Robert Williams III’s minutes going forward. The lost impact of Malcolm Brogdon off the bench showed how much one player can swing a team’s second unit fortune, Brogdon scoring nearly half of Boston’s bench points that sufficed for 20th in the league, roughly the same amount the eventual champion Nuggets received per game. Pritchard could never fully replace Brogdon’s steady game-to-game shooting away from the ball. His opportunity to do so, again, limited through the first two games (24 mins.). He didn’t take advantage on Monday.
Mazzulla shouldn’t abandon Pritchard, Hauser and Kornet based on such a small sample size. The slow start for their unit that earned a nickname one year ago should have the coaching staff reassessing combinations instead. Boston dove deep into its second unit on opening night, combining Horford and Kornet’s minutes early alongside Hauser, Brown and Pritchard — posting a 100 offensive rating (-60 net) across three minutes. That group didn’t return — Kornet receiving a DNP-CD against Miami — while ensuing ones suffered from the same playmaking issues. Mazzulla tried combining Tatum, Porziņģis, Horford, Pritchard and Hauser later in the game to no avail.
The Celtics’ best bench bust came in the first quarter against Miami when Porziņģis exited early and Brissett entered next to Hauser and Horford. His offensive rebounding helped free Hauser for a three, but Horford scored 0 points, Brissett managed two on a cutting dunk and Pritchard only got one shot off, a made three, over 13 minutes. Returning Tatum before the first quarter helped the bench achieve a narrow first quarter win, while White and Tatum helped Hauser and Pritchard win their minutes early in the fourth. Not exactly relief.
Horford did, however, close the game well in place of Porziņģis after the big man fouled out, the most reliable backup on the team currently as a former starter. Few other players off the bench bring much pedigree as capable of setting up others consistently with the ball in their hands.
That’ll require more passing strides from Brown and perhaps some tinkering by Mazzulla to line up Holiday’s minutes with the second unit more often. Reports teased a sixth man role for Holiday early in training camp, but that ship appears to have sailed. White’s play as a starter worked too well to consider moving his minutes around.
The greatest burden falls on the bench players to simply perform better. Boston bought into this inconsistency by consolidating the roster over the summer. More intrigue appeared before opening night from the second unit players though, and if last year’s second unit stars don’t regain their form within 5-10 games, Mazzulla might have to look again for new faces — who didn’t arrive sitting too far from Pritchard, Hauser and Kornet.
“We’ve got a lot of different guys now, new guys, new faces,” Brown said. “It definitely feels different, but it’s early, we’ve still got a lot of stuff to work on, we’ve still got a lot of stuff to build, chemistry, tests we’re gonna experience this year and we’ve gotta be ready for them.”