Boston’s bench has slowly improved its play over the last several games and continued that trend in Monday’s win over Charlotte
Ever since Avery Bradley missed the first of four games due to an Achilles injury on January 7, the Boston Celtics bench has stepped up big to help keep the team’s recent momentum going forward.
That much proved true once again on Monday, as a small group of reserves used grit and hustle to help propel the Celtics toward a 108-98 victory over the Charlotte Hornets in Bradley’s first game back.
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Center Kelly Olynyk led the way for the bench, posting 15 points and 9 rebounds. Jaylen Brown followed with nine points, and Marcus Smart made up for a two-point night with an all-around effort of five rebounds, four assists, two steals and a block.
Boston has now won seven of its last eight contests and 13 of its last 16.
“You just gotta take what the defense gives you,” Olynyk said in a postgame interview aired by Comcast SportsNet. “That second unit, (we’re) just trying to be aggressive and help the starters out.”
Of course, the main headline of this game is – as always – point guard Isaiah Thomas’ big fourth quarter. He posted 17 of his game-high 35 points in the frame, and Boston probably wouldn’t have won without his stellar scoring display.
But instead of giving him all of the credit for his league-high 10.1 points per game in the fourth quarter, have you ever thought about who he’s playing with for the majority of that final frame?
That’s right – the bench.
“I think it says a lot about him and the level he’s playing at, and it says a lot about the fact that he’s got a lot of skilled guys around him,” Celtics coach Brad Stevens said when asked about Thomas’ consistent dominance in the fourth quarter. “When you’re playing Kelly and (Jonas Jerebko) together with him, there’s a lot of space on the floor to operate.”
Now, a quick look at the box score might suggest that the bench didn’t have much of an impact in this game outside of Olynyk.
The five reserves that played combined for just 29 of Boston’s 108 points, with Olynyk standing as the only one to score double-digits. Meanwhile, Al Horford had 22 points and Jae Crowder had 15 points to complement Thomas’ 35 in the starting lineup.
Yet, nine of the Hornets’ 11 turnovers were forced by a lineup with at least two bench players on the floor. The reserves outscored Charlotte’s, 29-26, and nearly half of the Celtics’ 44 rebounds came from the bench (17).
The Hornets finished with 42 rebounds themselves, making Boston 11-0 this season when out-rebounding its opponent.
Outside of this game, reserves Smart, Jerebko, Olynyk and Gerald Green have all improved their play as of late with each one capable of leading the group when called upon.
Olynyk served as the bench hero this time around, as his 15 points came on 6-of-9 shooting while making both of his three-point attempts and assisting on four buckets. This comes a game after posting 26 points and 8 boards in Friday’s win over the Hawks and he now has 12 or more points in four of his last five games.
“I think he’s gotten into a good rythym,” Al Horford said.
Listen; as good as the Celtics’ starting lineup is with a healthy group, this team will only go as far as its bench can help them. In order to succeed moving toward the playoffs, Boston will need a bench that can help maintain leads, cut deficits against other benches and mesh well with the starting lineup.
If this recent stretch is any indication for what’s to come, what’s not to like about Boston?
We already know Green can provide short spurts of scoring off the bench when the rest of the team is cold. You can count on Smart and Jerebko to come up with good defensive plays with occasional hot moments on offense. Brown and Terry Rozier aren’t perfect, but both can hold their own on the court when called upon.
The only real question this year has been Olynyk, but he’s really starting to improve over the last several games. He seems like a whole new player over the last week and a half, as he’s taking better shots and operating out of the pick-and-roll much more smoothly.
And as a result, the Celtics are on a tear.
“We just need him to play like that at all times,” Thomas said. “When he’s aggressive, looking for his shot, shooting his open shots and even getting in there and getting rebounds and offensive put backs, that only helps us as a unit. He’s been doing a great job of that the past few games.”
Overall, Boston’s bench has surely been impressive over the last several games. After all, it did cut a 20-point deficit with three seconds left in the third quarter to six points with 5:47 left in the fourth quarter against the Eastern Conference-leading Cleveland Cavaliers on December 30.
This group of reserves is improving drastically, and Olynyk’s emergence only makes it better. Let’s see if Boston can keep up this winning tear behind these improvements.