BOSTON — Kristaps Porzingis curled around Monte Morris and Anthony Gill’s screens as Derrick White chased behind, arriving too late to challenge a shot that cut the Celtics’ lead from 24 points to 10 between the midway points of the second and third quarters.
Joe Mazzulla’s attempt to squash the run with a rare timeout allowed White to respond with a feed to Al Horford for three and a triple of his own. The time arrived for Boston’s bench to enter with a 16-point cushion.
Mazzulla didn’t participate in the discussions leading Malcolm Brogdon to the Celtics while accepting a bench role after four seasons as a starter. Brodgon held other choices like the Raptors. His decision gave Boston balance between its lineups, pairing Brogdon with sharpshooters Grant Williams, Sam Hauser and depth big Luke Kornet. They formed a nearly full second unit that spelled Jaylen Brown, Jayson Tatum and Al Horford in Sunday’s 112-94 win over the Wizards. Boston’s bench outscored Washington’s, 48-47, shooting 15-for-27 (55.6% FG).
Most impressively, the Celtics outscored the Wizards, 26-23, with Brown and Tatum on the bench. They’ve narrowly lost those minutes this season, 65-68, after getting outscored by 87 points with the Jays last year.
“You’ve got a guy who’s been doing this, knows how to play the game, taking that leadership role in that second unit to really get them going,” Marcus Smart said. “So to have somebody like Malcolm to be able to come in the way he does, it makes it a little bit easier for them. They feel comfortable and that’s the key. Our bench is something we’re going to need this year, and they’re going to help us win a lot of games. So to have a guy like Malcolm doing what he’s doing and then the rest of those guys tagging along with him is key.”
Brogdon entered and drew four free throws after Tatum and Brown missed a pair of shots attacking on the ball. Grant and Al Horford getting up the floor quickly gave him a driving lane against Will Barton. Brogdon previously commented on how Brown and Tatum keep him away from the opposing team’s best defender, and he’s drawing the third-most free throw attempts per game of his career (3.17), matching Brown and Tatum’s percentage of fouls drawn by the Celtics as a team.
Tatum and Horford soon left the floor and Brogdon took over ball-handling duties in the third quarter, bouncing around Kornet screens for a pull-up two and three that extended Boston’s lead from 12 to 17 points.
Then, he played connector between Brown and Williams in transition, setting up the big man to find Brown above the break for three.
Hauser relieved Brown moments later, and Brogdon found him with an in-bounds pass above Kornet’s high screen while Smart faked back screen action below them to free the shooter for a three that blew the game open.
“With the Pacers I was a number one, number two option, depending on the night,” Brogdon said Saturday. “The ball was in my hands, I made all the decisions, my usage was high on that team and then defensively, I was guarding the best perimeter guy. With Boston, they have their two guys. They have guys that are two of the best players in the world. So for me, it’s got to be finding a role and succeeding in that role and figuring how I can impact the game. My game is suited for being versatile, doing what the team needs, being skilled in multiple areas of the game so I can have an impact no matter how you play me.”
While Brogdon sports a -1.1 net rating between minutes with the starters and bench, the early returns from playing alongside Brown, Hauser, Williams and Kornet included a 136 offensive and 74 defensive rating in six minutes. When Smart joined them in Brown’s place on Sunday, they still outscored the Wizards by 22 points per 100 possessions.
Kornet now leads the Celtics with 2.8 screen assists per game and a 97.4 defensive rating. Hauser (101.4 DR) and Williams (110.2) have defended while shooting 20-for-33 (60.6%) from three, 11 of them assisted by Brogdon, who even found Kornet for a side-step three over Porzingis in the closing minutes of the win.
The Celtics sport the eighth best bench plus-minus (+11) and second-best efficiency (50.4%) despite only ranking 17th (34.4 PPG) in second unit scoring. Their bench doesn’t rack up points like Bennedict Mathurin on the Pacers and the loaded Knicks and Clippers backup players, but they do defend (55.1 DR, 12th) and make the most of their minutes.
They’re also loaded with shooting and found their size over the weekend in 7-2 Kornet. Team results, rather than gaudy scoring numbers like 23 points on 6-for-12 shooting, could drive Brogdon’s Sixth Man of the Year case.
Boston’s bench only averaged 16.3 minutes per game last year, finishing 27th in playing time and 26th in scoring. White and Williams constituted the majority of that time, with Daniel Theis sprinkled in occasionally after arriving at the trade deadline. Ime Udoka chased wins and standings position after a slow start, and never developed full trust in Hauser, Aaron Nesmith, Payton Pritchard and the cast of available reserves.
That led to Tatum, Brown and Horford finishing with some of the highest minute totals in the league by the end of the postseason. A load Sunday’s win allowed the Celtics to ease off of, reducing Horford’s share from 41 during Williams’ Friday suspension to 23 on Sunday.
Depth can also present challenges, evidenced by Brogdon and White (22 mins. each) each falling behind Kornet (25 mins.) on Friday while Boston played double-big, an adjustment Brogdon admitted to after Saturday’s film session that’ll present itself again when Robert Williams III returns.
More often though, Brogdon’s three offensive rebounds in the third quarter against Miami, pair of baskets early in the fourth against Orlando and defensive effort against Philadelphia make him a shoo-in for starter minutes. A luxury off the bench.
“(Brogdon) does a phenomenal job of making sure the entire team locked in,” Batman said. “In order for us to be special, we have to stay locked in at all hours, night in and night out.”