ATLANTA — Depth was the Celtics’ primary weakness last season, the main obstacle between them and an NBA championship. That has suddenly become a strength this season and it’s primarily because of faith.
President of basketball operations Brad Stevens didn’t overhaul the bench as was clamored for after the NBA Finals loss to the Warriors, when the reserves wilted under the pressure. Instead, he brought back the same crew, added Malcolm Brogdon, and kept confidence that the offseason would be a period of improvement and reassurance.
Suddenly, the bench is a strength. The Celtics began their showdown Wednesday with the conference rival Atlanta Hawks knowing Brogdon and Marcus Smart would be absent with injuries.
That forced interim coach Joe Mazzulla to shuffle his starting lineup, trust in the reserves to play increased minutes and then react with more adjustments when neither Jayson Tatum nor Jaylen Brown were dominant.
The result was rather stunning. A 126-101 win at State Farm Arena in a game the Celtics led for the final 45 minutes and 18 seconds. The Celtics handled the Hawks with contributions from players who aren’t household names, players who sat on the end of that bench last season and entered this new year as major question marks.
Sam Hauser, the elite shooter the Celtics have been seeking since Eddie House, splashed five 3-pointers, added six rebounds, and was a plus-35 in his 27 minutes. Luke Kornet, who Stevens insisted would make a significant contribution as a backup center despite being an emergency option most of his career, was 7-for-7 shooting and added four blocked shots.
“Hearing that, it gets a little fire going in your body,” Hauser said of the bench criticism last season. “I wanted to get better, wanted to work hard in the offseason. I wanted to show and prove [myself] out there. Payton [Pritchard] too, he was a part of the rotation last year and he’s been playing really, really well the last few games.”
Hauser’s right; Pritchard has been stellar in replacing Brogdon, hustling to make an impact and then knocking down 3-pointers to add an offensive element. He swished a 29-footer to end the first half and reclaim momentum when the Hawks had closed the deficit to 6 points.
Hauser, Pritchard, and Kornet combined for 44 points on 17-for-21 shooting along with 17 rebounds.
“It says a lot about the depth with the ability to step up,” Mazzulla said. “To me, that’s what a team is. We have certain guys that we expect to do things every night and if it’s not them, we have to be ready to trust others around them. I think the guys are doing that.”
The Celtics have had issues with player development in recent years. They couldn’t get former first-round picks Aaron Nesmith and Romeo Langford to reach their potential or even become solid contributors. They loaded their bench with a bunch of chemistry guys who just couldn’t play. So when they needed support for Tatum and Brown in the Finals, the Celtics suffered.
Hauser and Kornet have developed with work. Derrick White, who started at point guard in place of Smart, has benefited from a full training camp and the organization’s confidence in his game. He played timidly last season, afraid to make mistakes, hoping his jumpers would fall but no real confidence it would happen.
He has become a completely different player this season, attacking the rim with vigor, shooting from the 3-point line with rhythm, and consistently making the right play. He finished Wednesday with 16 points, 10 assists, and 5 rebounds. That’s the Derrick White that encouraged Stevens to deal Josh Richardson, Langford, and a first-round pick to San Antonio to acquire him.
“We’ve got a lot of guys who can do a lot of things to help us win games,” White said. “We trust every person on this roster and when they come in, they do things for us. It’s a long season, some injuries, people are going to be out, so we’re going to need everybody.”
There have been some impressive moments during this eight-game Boston winning streak, but this may have been the most improbable win because it was so convincing against a team that has given the Celtics nightmares in recent years. Trae Young never exploded for his barrage of 40-footers. The Celtics defense made sure of that.
Atlanta shot just 41.6 percent from the field, missed 25 of 32 3-point attempts, and never mounted a serious surge after the Celtics made a 25-9 third-quarter run. Boston was wary of this game, especially since the Hawks soundly defeated the Milwaukee Bucks on the road Monday.
But they received 13 points from the bench in the opening quarter — Tatum made just one shot — in jumping out to a 12-point lead. The Celtics didn’t need elite Tatum or elite Brown against a conference contender. Their depth has turned into an advantage.
Stevens’s faith in some of those guys who couldn’t help last year is paying off, and he has ample time to upgrade the bench with more moves if necessary. But as of now, it isn’t necessary.