This is why the Celtics acquired Malcolm Brogdon in the offseason. Brad Stevens, the team’s president of basketball operations, earnestly offered up a group of players who weren’t part of the future and a first-round pick to nab the crafty guard from the Indiana Pacers.
He was considered the final piece, the bench stabilizer that could produce in long spurts, support Jayson Tatum and Jaylen Brown offensively as a reliable third scorer. There was speculation he would take over at point guard for Marcus Smart as the Celtics struggled with late-game execution, especially during the NBA Finals.
That hasn’t been the case. Brogdon has etched a unique role for the Celtics, a microwave type that can score, distribute and defend. He has also become one of the better 3-point shooters in the NBA, making 44 percent of his attempts.
On Wednesday, with the Celtics choosing to rest three starters, including Tatum, Brogdon and Derrick White spearheaded an impressive 97-93 win over a fully-healthy Toronto Raptors team that needed a victory to avoid the ninth seed.
Brogdon scored 29 points as the Celtics led for all but 14 seconds of the final three quarters, staving off rallies. Brogdon swished the clinching free throws to help Boston earn the No. 2 seed; it will wait nearly a week to learn of its playoff opponent, determined by the play-in tournament.
This victory was a testament to the Celtics’ improved depth from last season. With Tatum, Al Horford, and Marcus Smart out with rest/injuries, Celtics coach Joe Mazzulla started Mike Muscala and Sam Hauser to join White, Brown and Robert Williams.
That quartet held its own against Toronto’s first team. And then Brogdon came off the bench for the 67th time this season and sparked the offense as the Celtics built a double-digit lead. He attacked the rim. He swished 3-pointers. He bailed the Celtics out of late shot-clock situations with creative drives and floaters.
The Celtics couldn’t have asked for more from Brogdon this season. He’s blended into the team concept, accepted his role and flourished with the freedom and trust given. Mazzulla has essentially told him, “Go score the ball.” And he’s obliged.
Brogdon is the leading candidate for Sixth Man of the Year — an award won twice by Kevin McHale and then Bill Walton in 1986, but not since by a Celtic.
“The humility he brings to our group, he takes pride in the second unit,” Mazzulla said. “In order to be a great team you have to have people like that. We have that from top to bottom. Malcolm has come in here with patience, humility and understanding, credit to the locker room for embracing and empowering him. I hope he gets [the award]. He deserves it. When he plays at a high level, we’re really good.”
Brogdon’s presence would make the Celtics unquestionably better, but it was uncertain exactly how. Stevens told Brogdon he would come off the bench from the beginning, eliminating any controversy about potentially starting over Smart.
He’s played a career-low 26 minutes per game, but he’s produced mightily in those limited stretches, averaging 14.9 points (third on the team) along with 44 percent shooting from the 3-point line. Brogdon’s 3-point percentage in his three seasons in Indiana was 35.2, so his surge has been an unexpected development.
“Coming off the bench, it is a challenge sometimes, to be honest,” he said. “Having a career where you start your whole career and then you come off the bench, and that’s where you have to suck it up. You’re not going to score as much. You’re not going to play as much, but that’s what I think makes a great team, having guys that are able to do that, having guys that are able to sacrifice.
“For me it’s been a mindset the past couple of weeks, trying to take advantage of every minute I get.”
Getting Brogdon to buy in wasn’t as difficult as perhaps anticipated because the reward was so high. The Celtics are competing for an NBA championship and even the most cohesive championship clubs in league history possessed a group of players who sacrificed their role for the sake of the team, who grew tired of dropping buckets in losses and missing the playoffs and knew adjusting into a lesser role could result in team success.
Brogdon could start for any team in the NBA and so would White. But the Celtics have the luxury of bringing those standouts off the bench. White has gotten his share of starts to fill in for resting or injured teammates. Brogdon has remained a reserve regardless of the situation.
“I knew it would be a very fluid situation and for me it’s about understanding it, embracing it and continuing to embrace it for 82 games and the playoffs,” Brogdon said. “I feel like that’s what I’ve done. As far as us being successful, this is exactly what I thought. I thought I would come to a championship team. That’s what we have here.
“I want to win. The last two seasons for me were rough, not being able to win. I’m a winner. I feel like I’m known as a winner. I want to be known as a winner when I’m done playing in this league. Being in Boston, being a Celtic fits me perfectly.”
And it’s been a perfect fit for the Celtics as well.