Celtics

Robb: Examining the surprise catalyst to Boston’s fast start to season

(Kathryn Riley/Getty Images)

The one glaring weak spot when this Celtics season began was supposed to be the bench. With Kemba Walker sidelined for at least the opening month of the year and Romeo Langford out for even longer, there looked to be glaring depth issues, especially in the backcourt.

Jeff Teague was brought in to provide some veteran scoring but beyond a couple of first-round picks in Aaron Nesmith and Payton Pritchard, it was a lot of familiar faces from a reserve unit that ranked 29th in the league in bench points last season (28.5). A $27.5 million trade exception would likely help fill some glaring holes later in the season left by Gordon Hayward's departure, but the second unit depth chart looked like a downgrade compared to last year on paper, especially with Marcus Smart being promoted to the starting five. Brad Stevens would have to mix and match with an unbalanced depth chart heavy on bigs and undersized guards to find a way to win.

It wasn’t pretty at times in the midst of a 3-3 start to the season but next to the stellar play of Jayson Tatum and Jaylen Brown, the biggest positive amid the Celtics’ five-game winning streak, capped by a 124-97 win over the Magic Friday night, has been none other than the Celtics undermanned second unit.

Payton Pritchard has been a revelation captaining the reserves as we’ve documented at length here at BSJ over the past couple of weeks. He was at it again on Friday night, scoring 10 of his 16 points in the second quarter to jumpstart a blowout victory for the Celtics. The Oregon product is playing with the poise of a 10-year veteran just 10 games into his NBA career, quickly turning from a useful backup point guard into an integral part of Boston’s rotation.

“We've seen it with Payton before the guys went out,” Marcus Smart said. “Payton has been doing it,  coming in and really excelling. Really just surprising us and everybody else in this league. He's showing that he belongs here.”

However, Pritchard’s modest but efficient numbers (9.3 ppg, 3.1 apg, 42% 3pt) only tell part of the story for Boston’s early-season success. Even with Boston’s double big starting lineup constantly digging Boston holes in the first 10 games of the season at the start of halves, the C’s have made their way to the top of the Eastern Conference with an 8-3 record as the team’s biggest expected weakness (the bench) has turned into a strength. All of a sudden, Boston’s backups have turned into an offensive force.

A closer look at the impressive all-around numbers.

This season (11 games)

Celtics bench: 36.0 ppg

48.9% FG (2nd)
40.5% 3PT (4th)
5.5 offensive rebounds per game (2nd)
3.8 steals (2nd)
2.9 blocks (2nd)
+2.6 net rating (6th)

Let’s compare those numbers to 2019-20 numbers:

28.5 ppg (29th)
45.6% FG (12th)
31.8% 3pt (28th)
4.7 offensive rebounds (4th)
3.2 steals (7th)
2.3 blocks (6th)
+1.4 net rating (6th)

In nearly every single meaningful statistic, the Celtics have improved. So how exactly have they managed to do it without being close to full strength? Let’s look at some of the bigger factors beyond Pritchard.