Amid injuries and illnesses to the starters, the majority of the Celtics bench has played above its head for the entire 2019-20 regular season, which is a credit to its personnel. Marcus Smart has been the sixth man in theory but has started nearly 75 percent of the games he’s been active in due to injuries leaving the rest of the Celtics bench ‘shorthanded’ on an almost nightly basis.
The injury bug is life in the NBA but it’s also been prevalent a bit more than usual for this team. The reality of how this group has been constructed is that this team’s success is going to be largely dependent on its top talent being fully intact. For awhile the Celtics were able to navigate through the injury turmoil with an underwhelming bench on paper. The second unit defense was elite early in the year with strong defense from the likes of Brad Wanamaker, Javonte Green and Semi Ojeleye along with timely offense from Enes Kanter and others on select nights. It wasn’t pretty but the reserves gave enough on both ends of the floor most nights to give the Celtics a chance at winning without leaning too heavily on the starters, effectively giving the front office enough confidence to stick with this mismatched group through February.
Normally, this is the time of year when a team is gaining more confidence in its personnel and sharpening its rotation ahead of the postseason in the race for better seeding. However, days after giving up a league-worst 51 points in the fourth quarter with a host of reserves featuring prominently in the collapse, the Celtics bench took another step backward on Friday night in a 99-94 loss to the Utah Jazz.
The box score will show that the Celtics lost this game on the offensive end and that’s true to a degree. 37 percent shooting and 94 points (the C’s are 1-6 when scoring less than 100) are not going to get the job done and poor shooting from the starters played a part in that. However, this was always going to be a game that the C’s were going to need to win with their defense with two 20-point scorers watching from the sidelines and Kemba Walker on a minutes limit.
In those circumstances, it is essential that Boston’s bench play well on the defensive end even with its two best defenders in the starting five (Smart, Ojeleye). Instead, the Jazz dominated a battle of the second units in the first half, using a 32-10 run midway through the first half to build a double-digit lead the C’s were never able to recover from.
Brad Stevens did his best to prop up the shorthanded effort but Smart pulled no punches in his postgame assessment.
“Our effort was sh*t,” Smart said. “We gave them the first couple punches and then, after that, our effort died down. We picked it up towards the end, but it was too late at that time. We definitely couldn't make a shot. They did a great job of coming out and executing all the way through, and that really put us on our heels. So we've got to move on from it. Game's over. Give credit to Utah. They came in and did their job, and we just have to bounce back on Sunday.”
That crappy effort he was referring to came almost entirely from the bench (with a couple of miscues mixed in from Walker and Tatum while each was trying to carry the offensive load for that overmatched group). Amid injuries to the wings, one player (Ojeleye) has stepped up his play and provided some useful minutes with the starters. The rest of the bench? Beyond Rob Williams, no one is inspiring confidence that they will be able to hold their own with the best in the East during the postseason right now or help this group regularly win games in the next month against solid teams.
Outside of Jordan Clarkson and Joe Ingles, the Jazz has no ‘name’ players off their bench but that did not stop them from walloping the C’s in the scoring department by a 39-13 margin. They played fast, crisp basketball, hunting out mismatches and forcing mistakes by the C’s in high leverage spots on both ends of the floor, something that we’ve seen plenty from this group over the past week.
MVP-level play from Tatum over the past month have covered up some of the bench faults offensively but that guy was not in the building on Friday night (18 points in 32 minutes), which made Utah domination of the C’s second unit on both ends of the floor a game-changing result in both halves. Every player on the Utah bench had