This season Celtics Jayson Tatum, Jaylen Brown, and Marcus Smart all rank in the top 20 in the NBA in minutes per game. Tatum’s playing time has been particularly extensive. He is averaging 36.7 minutes, fourth most in the NBA.
Coach Ime Udoka never intended to lean on his top players this much, and moving forward he would like their minutes to come down. But when four of the Celtics’ first 12 games went to overtime, with two pushing into a second overtime, the extra wear and tear was almost unavoidable.
The Celtics found themselves in a seemingly unending string of games that were tense and close until the final minutes. And that’s part of the reason these last three relatively breezy wins over the Lakers, Thunder, and Rockets are valuable. Udoka was able to look down his bench, send in extra reinforcements, and get some of his top players some rest.
“It just means you’re taking care of business in the meat of the game,” Udoka said. “Instead of having to either come back or maintain the lead, you’re doing what you’re supposed to do in the meat of the game. So that’s the benefit of it, obviously, get to see some other guys … We don’t want all these tight games and extra minutes. And, if we could take these, you know, 29-point leads, we’ll take that every night.”
The younger Celtics such as second-year players Aaron Nesmith and Payton Pritchard have not received much playing time recently. But Udoka knows there will be games when they are needed, as injury replacements or to play in a favorable matchup.
So Udoka wants to find opportunities for them where he can. Pritchard and Nesmith played the final six minutes of Monday’s romp against Houston, and Nesmith drilled a pair of jumpers during his brief stint.
Udoka, who was mostly a reserve during his playing days, has spoken to Boston’s bench players several times already this season about staying prepared despite the uncertainty of their situations. He said he had another talk with Nesmith prior to Monday’s game.
“The role of a bench player is to come in and be ready,” Udoka said. “And you don’t get the same leash that other guys get to warm up and go through your progressions and get shots. You’ve got to come in to impact the game immediately. And so I think guys work on that. First shot in the gym, they shoot some corner threes and shots they are going to get in the game. So he was prepared and everybody’s obviously happy for him. It’s good to see some go down.”
The Celtics have had their full roster available just five times this season. On Monday, Brown and Robert Williams returned after being sidelined with injuries, but Josh Richardson was out because of a non-COVID illness.
Brown and Richardson are questionable for Wednesday’s game against the Nets, but the Celtics have mostly been able to weather their absences.
Dennis Schröder and Grant Williams started while Brown and Robert Williams were out, and against the Rockets both returned to important bench roles, and Boston’s reserves scored 39 of the team’s 108 points.
“They’ve been playing great,” Brown said Monday of the bench. “If anybody hasn’t noticed, they’ve been making a lot of strides. Josh wasn’t here tonight, but Josh has been playing great. Dennis has been playing out of his mind. Dennis is a starter in this league, for sure. We said that before he got here.
“Romeo, he’s been up and down, but he was really good [against Houston]. We’ve got a lot of guys that are contributing consistently. Grant can shoot the ball excellent right now, and we’re going to need that. I’m starting to see us move in the right direction. We’ve got to stay consistent defensively, but the potential for this group is really good, so we’ve just got to keep building on it.”