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Bench must stand on its own two feet

By Gary Washburn
Globe Staff / January 14, 2010

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EAST RUTHERFORD, N.J. - At 2:41 of the fourth quarter, Bill Walker awoke from his season-long bench slumber, reared back, and dunked vigorously on New Jersey’s Josh Boone. There had been questions about whether numerous knee injuries had robbed Walker of his impressive vertical leap. The answer is no.

We found out a lot about Walker during last night’s 111-87 Celtics victory over the overwhelmed and uninterested Nets. He is getting healthy and in shape. He could be a contributor down the stretch.

Coach Doc Rivers was able to use his bench extensively, but even then he didn’t as much as he should have. In the second quarter, Paul Pierce collided with Trenton Hassell and the two banged knees, leaving Pierce limping back to the bench.

“I’m fine,’’ Pierce said. “I got hit in the knee a couple of times but I am OK.’’

That didn’t deter Rivers from using Pierce for nearly 11 minutes of the third quarter - after the Celtics built a 36-point halftime lead - to pile up his total to 28 minutes on a night when Boston was never threatened. Tonight’s game against Chicago concludes a stretch of six games in nine days, and the Celtics are exhausted, especially the veterans.

After missing five games with a right knee infection, Pierce logged 43, 41, 34, and 42 minutes before his 28 last night. Rivers has to figure out how to give his guys more rest against bad teams and allow his bench players to gain confidence and experience with quality minutes.

“It was good for me to play limited minutes tonight,’’ Pierce said. “I think [Monday] I played like, over 40 minutes, so hopefully these young guys can come in and give us sort of a breather while we’re hurting, man. It’s going to be big until we get healthy.’’

J.R. Giddens, Shelden Williams, and Walker are not going to help down the stretch by osmosis. They need to play, and against a team that essentially didn’t show up until the second half, this would have been the perfect opportunity.

When the second unit did get out there, they looked like one of those pee-wee teams that plays at halftime at TD Garden. The only thing missing was coach Willie Maye’s play-by-play. Because they don’t play together much, they looked confused, unsure, befuddled.

With Rasheed Wallace out for another few days with a foot injury and the Celtics closely monitoring Kevin Garnett’s right knee, the team needs more from its bench. Tony Allen is getting his share of minutes, but his play has regressed.

The most pleasant surprise is Brian Scalabrine, who has flourished in two starts in place of Wallace. He has scored 20 points in the past two games, equaling his total from all of November. More minutes have made him more confident.

“The guys I am playing with are great players and I am getting wide-open shots,’’ he said. “I believe this team, no matter who’s hurt, we can win in the regular season.

“If you are going to win a championship, you have to be healthy. But in the regular season, the way that we do things, with the guys we have who can step up, we should win every game. If guys go out, it shouldn’t deter us from winning that game.’’

The significance of that Walker dunk reverberated throughout the team. Not only did it prove that Walker is back athletically, it also was the beginning of a consistent stretch for the bench. Giddens followed with a reverse dunk and then a reverse layup. The increase in confidence was apparent.

Giddens played 16 minutes, the second-most he has played all season, and he finished with 6 points and 7 rebounds. Walker, in his second year, hasn’t even received garbage minutes. He played six minutes all season until last night, when he tallied 6 points, 2 rebounds, and 2 assists in six minutes.

Those are hardly gaudy numbers, but the younger players need confidence boosts. A block against Garnett in practice can only go so far. That dunk had Walker feeling like a part of the team after the game. He will be more motivated to work and become an asset.

There was a reason why Walker and Giddens were considered top 10 school prospects years ago and why they were standout players in college. If the Celtics are going to carry younger players on the roster, they have to use them. Rivers appears to be waiting for the perfect opportunity to unleash the end of his bench, but that time may be now.

Pierce is tired. Ray Allen is playing more minutes than anyone wanted. Garnett doesn’t need to play more than 32 minutes, and we have now seen what happens when Wallace is pushed too hard at age 35.

“I was very pleased,’’ Rivers said about the bench. “I thought they caught themselves in the fourth.

“I would like to see more of them but I would like to see more leads for us to do things like that. But we have to definitely use our bench.’’

Gary Washburn can be reached at gwashburn@globe.com.

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