ORLANDO — The Celtics held a 22-point lead with 4 minutes, 4 seconds left in their game against the Pistons on Friday when coach Ime Udoka emptied his bench and sent in Bruno Fernando, Payton Pritchard, and Aaron Nesmith. The three joined fellow backups Enes Freedom and Romeo Langford, and their only real responsibility was to make sure that the large advantage wasn’t erased.
Less than three minutes later, the 22-point cushion was 9, and it was unclear whether Udoka would have to go back to his starting unit to finish off a 12-win opponent.
Udoka stuck with the backups and Boston held on for a 102-93 win. Nevertheless, it wasn’t an encouraging stretch for players trying to show they belong in the regular rotation, to the point Udoka held off putting them in when the Celtics had a 20-point lead early in the fourth quarter of Sunday’s rout of the Magic.
“I think anytime anybody plays you’re looking for certain things, and all of those moments are valuable, not only for us, but for the young guys,” Udoka said Sunday, before Boston faced the Magic. “I was in that situation as a player and it’s always been a pet peeve of mine when leads dissipate a little bit at the ends of games. So whether I was an assistant or whatever, I’d always talk to the third group about coming in and maintaining. You’re always playing for something, to show something.”
Udoka pointed out that it was an unusual grouping. With newly acquired players P.J. Dozier and Bol Bol out with injuries, the end of the bench is a bit clunky. For example, centers Freedom and Fernando would rarely share the court together.
“But at the same time Romeo, Payton, and Aaron are rotation players at times,” Udoka said, “and you’d obviously like to see them handle that a little bit better.”
In recent games, Udoka has mostly relied on an eight-man rotation that features Josh Richardson, Grant Williams, and Dennis Schröder coming off the bench.
Finding his form
Marcus Smart took just three shots and scored just 3 points in Sunday’s win, but did contribute eight rebounds. He is in the midst of one of the best stretches of his Celtics career since returning from his bout with COVID-19 two weeks ago. The guard entered Sunday averaging 11 points, 6.6 assists, and 3.7 rebounds while shooting 54.9 percent from the field since his return. Udoka said that in addition to his steady defense and efficient play on offense, Smart has been in control as a floor general. “He was one of the main guys pushing the pace,” Udoka said, “and he’s made a conscious effort as far as that and it’s helped us going forward” . . . Forward Al Horford, who was briefly sidelined because of a sore foot during Friday’s win over Detroit, started and had a double-double, with 13 points and 11 rebounds.