The backups are stepping up. The reserves are more than filling in. Boston’s second unit is playing as well — if not better, in some cases — than the first.
But Doc Rivers wants it known that the Celtics’ bench, which produced 52 points in a 106-104 win against the Clippers on Sunday at the Garden, didn’t just start playing well. This has been an ongoing trend, he noted, that has just now picked up notice.
“We can’t forget: The bench has been good for four or five games before all the injuries,” the Celtics coach said, referencing the season-ending injuries to Rajon Rondo and Jared Sullinger. “They were playing great and I was complaining about the starters.
“Now, the starters are playing as well as the bench. You can almost make that case, which is really nice.”
According to hoopstats.com, the top-scoring bench in the NBA, as of Sunday, belonged to Charlotte (41 points a game). Previously, Boston’s bench ranked 16th in scoring (33 points a game).
But in their last four games, all of them without Rondo and all of them wins, the Celtics’ bench has averaged 46 points per game — 46 percent of their total scoring output.
The bench’s production has been sorely needed with Rondo and Sullinger out, but there’s another factor: When the Celtics’ second unit comes in, it has been able to create a lead or, if one already existed, seriously extend it.
“There’s no drop-off,” guard Avery Bradley said. “That’s how it’s supposed to be.
“When the starters come out of the game, the second unit is supposed to come in and keep it rolling, and that’s what we’ve been doing. It’s always hard to beat a team that’s like that, that has a great second unit that could be a starting lineup.”
For three straight games, the Celtics also have had at least three of their reserves score in double figures, and against the Clippers, Jeff Green and Leandro Barbosa each scored 14 points, and Jason Terry added 13.
“That’s something we said that we were capable of doing before the season,” Terry said of the bench’s production, “and now we’re starting to see why we said that.”
Terry has previously dubbed the Celtics’ bench the “Gangster Squad,” a sobriquet partly tied to the recent action movie about LAPD cops battling a mobster’s empire. The title hasn’t really taken off in terms of popularity, but the bench’s scoring has shot up.
The stat sheet also has shown that while Boston’s second unit has been pouring in points, the opposing benches haven’t held up their end.
To wit: Against Miami, Boston’s backups outscored the Heat’s, 39-29; against Sacramento, the Celtics owned a 50-26 advantage; against Orlando, it was 43-31; and against the Clippers, the margin was 52-29.
Of course, like Rivers said, this isn’t a new occurrence. Boston’s bench also outscored Atlanta’s bench, 45-21, when the Celtics lost to the Hawks in double overtime Jan. 25, a game in which the Celtics blew a 27-point lead.
A crucial point in the Clippers game came in the second quarter, when Boston built a 19-point lead that it took into the locker room at halftime.
In that quarter, Terry scored 6 points, Green added 5, and Barbosa and Chris Wilcox each put in 4. By that point, Boston’s bench had more points than its starters.
Meanwhile, during that same quarter, the Clippers’ bench scored just 2 points.
Yet, it’s more than just energy.
Boston’s backups have come into the game and played efficient small-ball, often operating with one taller player inside (such as Wilcox or Jason Collins) with four others working the perimeter.
Along with that scheme, the Celtics’ second unit also has really pushed the tempo, with Barbosa and Terry racing the ball upcourt for transition baskets.
“When you have a combination of those guys that can knock down shots, especially from the 3-point line, and drive the ball to the basket, it’s such a hard thing to defend when you spread the court like that,” Paul Pierce said.
Courtney Lee is now a starter, but he remembers being a member of the second unit.
“I know when I was [on it], we focused on going in and elevating the level of play, as far as energy and hustle,” Lee said. “We try to get as many stops as possible so we can get out and run.
“And they’ve been doing that.”
They’ve been doing that — and a lot more.Baxter Holmes can be reached at email@example.com. Follow him on Twitter at @BaxterHolmes.