ORLANDO — The Celtics bench has received its share of criticism this season. While the starting lineup at full strength is loaded, with two current All-Stars, a former All-Star, and a potential future All-Star, the reserves have been inconsistent at times.
One constant with regard to the bench has been the roles. Brad Wanamaker is the first point guard off the bench, especially with Marcus Smart now in the starting lineup. Robert Williams has replaced Enes Kanter as the primary backup center, and Grant Williams and Semi Ojeleye have played important roles on defense.
In Monday’s 111-89 win in Game 5 against the Raptors, the Celtics bench played a significant part, especially Wanamaker (15 points).
“I don’t know how long he played in that first half, but it felt like 13 or 14 minutes,” coach Brad Stevens said. “It was hard to take him out. He was playing great. When [the Raptors] go to their zones and things like that, he’s got such a great feel for the game, great instincts. He can adjust with the flow.”
What a performance like Wanamaker’s does is allow Stevens to give Smart or Kemba Walker rest without a significant dropoff. Wanamaker was plus-13 in 28 minutes in Game 5. Meanwhile, the Williamses and Ojeleye have held their own under playoff pressure.
This bodes well for Game 6 on Wednesday because the Celtics are going to need another stellar performance to win the series. In Game 5, Boston came out with the same intensity it did in Games 1 and 2, setting the tone defensively, as Stevens switched Smart onto All-Star Kyle Lowry, who finished with just 10 points on 3-for-8 shooting.
This time, the Raptors were left to ponder why they played so poorly. Afterward, coach Nick Nurse called out All-Star Pascal Siakam, who is averaging 15.8 points in the series and 15.4 percent shooting from the 3-point line. Even in Game 4, when he scored 23 points, Siakam missed 11 3-point attempts.
“He’s already been through deep playoff runs and had spectacular games,” Nurse said. “I’m not sure why he’s been so out of rhythm since the restart here. He hasn’t had a lot of great games. I’m not sure he’s been in great rhythm, and it’s too bad because he’s been spectacular in last year’s playoffs and he was spectacular all season long. But we’ve still got some games to play, so maybe he can get his rhythm.”
Close-out games are the hardest of the series because the opponent is fighting for its playoff life, and Lowry promised the Raptors would fight. So, the Celtics are going to have to respond with equal intensity. They were obviously shaken by the stunning loss in Game 3 on OG Anunoby’s buzzer-beating 3-pointer, and they turned in a clunker in Game 4.
But they regained control of the series with perhaps their best half of basketball this season in Monday’s first half. Nurse is going to make adjustments, and he spent the second half of Game 5 looking at possibilities on his bench.
Also, forward Serge Ibaka, who has tormented the Celtics this season, left Game 5 in the third quarter, and it was revealed Tuesday morning that he has a sprained ankle. He wore a boot on his left foot during a media session and said he’s uncertain for Game 6.
“It’s hard to explain how we don’t have a little bit more energy [in Game 5], and it’s even harder to explain how we don’t have it in Game 1,” Nurse said. “Energy has got to be there. I think when we do bring the energy, we’re right there, we’re super competitive and we look great. It’s my job to get them ready to go.”
It’s up to the Raptors to regain that energy, and up to the Celtics to keep it. Boston was able to retain that energy throughout the Philadelphia series, pulling out a couple of games in the fourth quarter en route to a sweep. These are different stakes, however: a berth in the conference finals and a series win over the defending NBA champions.
“We competed really hard on both ends, and it helped that we hit some shots,” Celtics forward Jayson Tatum said of Game 5. “We’ve got guys feeling good about themselves and we continued to build on that. We have to keep doing that.”
Stevens was brief with the media on Tuesday and offered no new wrinkles or adjustments he will make in reaction to those Nurse will likely make. What Stevens appears most concerned about is the focus of his team at the beginning of each half and withstanding a charge by the Raptors to take early control of a must-win game.
“One of the things I think I always experienced is the team that just lost really comes out super determined,” Nurse said. “You’d better be ready to meet that. We need to be at our best to win a game here.”