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Bob Ryan

Bench warrants some reconsideration

Email|Print|Single Page| Text size + By Bob Ryan
Globe Columnist / June 7, 2008

If you were into that matchup thing with the "Edge" going to one team or the other, there was unanimous agreement in three categories:

1. Guards

2. Coach

3. Bench

Those checkmarks were all next to the Los Angeles Lakers.

Nos. 1 and 2 aren't changing. Neither Kobe Bryant nor Phil Jackson are planning on retiring prior to tomorrow's Game 2. Kobe is the best player in the game and Phil has that nine-championship pedigree, plus that classic coach's whistle. (Doc Rivers was a far better player, for sure, but Phil sure can whistle.)

How about No. 3? Perhaps we should reconsider?

Here are the Game 1 basic bench numbers:

Min. Pts. Reb. Ast.

Boston 66 17 12 3

Los Angeles 60 15 7 2

Those numbers, in and of themselves, do not tell the story. Anyone watching the game knew that one of the main reasons the Celtics own a 1-0 advantage in the 2008 NBA Finals was the superb play of their bench. The Boston bench was much better, and it wasn't even close.

There were good reasons to declare that LA's bench was better than Boston's. Jackson's core quartet of Luke Walton, Jordan Farmar, Sasha Vujacic, and Ronny Turiaf was outstanding, both individually and as a unit, as the Lakers went through the regular season and advanced to the Finals by eliminating Denver, Utah, and San Antonio.

First of all, it's an energy bench. It's a fresh, young legs bench. Walton, son of You Know Who, is the elder statesman of the crew at 28. Turiaf, the aggressive big man from Martinique and Paris, by way of Gonzaga, is 25. Vujacic, a Slovenian, is 24. Farmar, the LA version of a Triple Eagle (Taft High School, UCLA, Lakers), was only eligible to drink legally last Nov. 30.

And there is no denying it had been a productive bench, one Jackson clearly believed was essential to the Laker cause. He gave these four guys an average of 80 minutes a game during the regular season, and he was rewarded with 32 points a game, which is only the beginning of the story.

Vujacic (43.7 percent) and Farmar (37.1) are quality 3-point shooters. Turiaf is a board beast, whether rebounding or keeping balls alive. And Walton is a classic facilitator, filling up the box score while making sure the ball keeps moving. They also enabled the Lakers to have a different look on defense.

The most important thing is that they functioned as a proper bench should function, with reasonably predictable playing times and definable roles.

The same could not be said for Boston's bench. The only two bench constants for Rivers during the first five months of the season were James Posey and Eddie House. The former was Doc's security blanket at small forward and big guard, while the latter was, for better or worse, Doc's backup to Rajon Rondo, and never mind that people have always believed House to be a 2-guard in a 1-guard's body, as they say. When Sam Cassell arrived, House began to lose time to the point, where he has only played 91 playoff minutes while recording four DNPs, plus a number of de facto DNPs in which he is inserted for a possession or two. Cassell, meanwhile, has had a crazy playoff ride, going from averaging 15 minutes a game in the first 11 playoff games, to a dead spot that featured four straight DNPs, to his current state, playing 12-plus minutes a game in the last two.

Scot Pollard was supposed to be the backup center, but injuries limited him to 22 games. This gave opportunities to Leon Powe and Glen "Big Baby" Davis, but neither lad could ever be sure exactly where he stood. Each young Big could tell tales of good games followed by DNPs, or vice versa. And when P.J. Brown was brought on following the All-Star Game, the situation became even more confusing, although there is little doubt now that he is Doc's primary Big off the bench.

So, entering the Finals, only Posey and Brown knew when they walked through the doors that they were certain to play. That's probably still the case.

The age mix is certainly interesting. Brown and Cassell are 38. Posey is 31. House is 30. Powe is 24. Davis is 22. Some nights, it's an Early Bird Special bench. Some nights it's something of an energy bench. There is no pattern. It's whatever Doc thinks he needs. It is not, night in and night out, a consistently reliable bench you can hang your coaching hat on.

But then there are nights such as Thursday. Cassell's jump shot, which had booked a trip to Cozumel back in the Cleveland series without telling its owner, returned to Logan in time for the game, freshly tanned and with the phone number of a young hottie, and it leaped into the basket the first three times Sam pulled the trigger. Powe's number was called when Doc felt the need for a little front-court assistance and he did what he always does, stuck his nose into the heavy action, and grabbed four rebounds and scored 4 second-chance points. Posey long ago wrote the book on making non-box score contributions, and he also made a patented 3-pointer that gave his team an 8-point lead (86-78) in the fourth quarter.

There was, however, no question which sub best earned his money. Brown went way above and beyond the call of duty, entering the game in place of the injured (sprained ankle) Kendrick Perkins with 6:19 left in the third quarter and remaining on the floor until Doc pulled him in favor of Posey with 1:49 remaining in the game. That's a consecutive run of 16:30, which is in itself longer than 27 of his 38 Celtics performances, and which undoubtedly represents his longest uninterrupted run as a Celtic.

It's not as if all he did was stand around and be his 6-foot-11-inch, dignified self. He was a force on the boards, and it would be rather redundant to say he was effective on defense. He always knows where to be, and he has a great knack of looming large when defensive help is needed. With Perkins out, had P.J. Brown been anything less than magnificent, the Celtics would have lost.

Yes, it was only one night, but on this occasion the bench checkmark went to Boston.

Bob Ryan is a Globe columnist. He can be reached at ryan@globe.com.

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