There was a high level of regret for Doc Rivers upon reflection.
The Celtics coach knew he erred when he left Brandon Bass on the bench for nearly the entire fourth quarter of Game 4 against the 76ers Friday night, a Boston loss.
Bass had been erratic offensively in the Eastern Conference semifinals, but he had exhibited a toughness all season the Celtics lacked in previous years in which they had disappointed in the playoffs.
Bass is undersized, but he never has feared diving into the paint, rising for a two-handed dunk. And he never has been shy about launching his midrange jumper, a shot that he works on tirelessly, even during those days when he played in Orlando when he was banished to garbage time by just-fired Magic coach Stan Van Gundy.
Monday night in Game 5 against the Sixers, when the Celtics offense needed a boost after Philadelphia dominated the first half and threatened to take control of this stunningly competitive series, Bass produced one of the best quarters in Celtics playoff history, proving relentless and unstoppable during a critical stretch.
His 18 points in the third quarter (and 27 overall) helped the Celtics fight off a valiant 76ers team, his outburst the primary reason why Boston cruised to a 101-85 victory at TD Garden.
Bass ruled the paint in the third quarter, and the Celtics depended greatly on his production as they shook off a lethargic first half, finally gaining a semblance of momentum in the series after the Game 4 debacle.
“To be honest with you, I wasn’t really frustrated,’’ Bass said about missing all but three seconds of the fourth quarter of Game 4. “I trust Doc and his coaching ability. For me, I just stay ready, and a night like tonight I was able to help.’’
The Celtics needed an athletic boost that was apparent from the tip. Kevin Garnett was forcing jumpers, trying in vain to get into a rhythm. Paul Pierce was again timid against the defense of Andre Iguodala. Ray Allen is obviously slowed by his sore right ankle and is shooting just 27 percent from the 3-point line in the series.
The secondary players have been erratic at best, and Bass has been solid but had done very little of the spectacular before Monday night. He was on his way to his best game of the postseason in Game 4, but Rivers ignored his 15 points in three quarters and stubbornly stuck with a smaller lineup that got burned defensively in the decisive final quarter.
Bass’s confidence has been fluttering during the postseason and playing in the fourth quarter of Game 4 could have been an opportunity for it to soar. Instead he was forced to play cheerleader, and Rivers realized he had made a mistake. Bass’s 5 first-half points Monday night didn’t exactly serve as a teaser for the third quarter, but point guard Rajon Rondo made sure to get Bass involved when the Celtics trailed, 53-47, and were on the verge of slipping farther behind.
Bass began the barrage with two free throws and then followed with a jumper as the Celtics began to find an offensive groove. Trailing, 57-55, Bass then scored 6 consecutive points, 4 on his patented two-handed dunks.
The 76ers, as they have all series, rallied again, cutting the Celtics’ lead to 1 point, but Bass struck again, canning a jumper and then coming back with another dunk, two free throws, and then an 18-footer to polish off his best quarter as a professional.
That stretch allowed the Celtics to take what eventually was a commanding 75-66 lead; they ended the quarter on a 28-11 run. Bass returned to his mortal self in the fourth with 4 points, but his impact on this game was unmistakable. The Celtics looked haggard and slow in the first 24 minutes as Philadelphia nabbed the momentum generated from the Game 4 comeback victory and played with high confidence at the start of Game 5.
“One of the things we keep trying to get Brandon to do is get to the second pick [for his jumper],’’ Rivers said. “But when he swings the ball and gets to the second one, we keep telling him, ‘How many bigs want to [cover you] twice on the same pick-and-roll, and then recover back out to you? And I just thought he kept the game simple in the second half. Didn’t try to do too much; he let the game come to him.’’
Bass said, “More than anything, it’s just hard work. After missing some shots [in earlier games], I just reverted back to what got me there, and that’s spending a lot of time in the gym, getting up a bunch of shots. It’s a blessing for me, just hard work, man. I’ve been working at it for a long time.’’
It was Bass’s first time on the postgame podium, and he attributed the beads of sweat rolling down his forehead to nervousness on the big stage. He had waited years for this opportunity, firmly planted in Van Gundy’s doghouse when the Magic faced the Celtics in the 2010 Eastern Conference finals, only playing when Orlando trailed three games to zero and Van Gundy was searching for any spark.
Bass’s tenure in Boston has been successful. He gives the Celtics solid midrange shooting and a sorely needed fresher and athletic body in the paint. While his third quarter was shocking, he burned the 76ers on shots that he drained with ease during the regular season.
And finally, the Celtics did something easy in this series.
“It was me taking advantage of my opportunity,’’ Bass said.
“They were doubling Paul and we have a few good players on this team that they’ve got to focus on, so they left me open and I was able to hit the shot.
“My motto is ‘God, Grind, Greatness,’ and grinding is what got me to this point and that’s what I’ll continue to do.’’