Bench play bears fruit — a rest period
NEW YORK — It took four games to materialize, but now it safely can be said the Celtics accomplished their first four-game sweep in 25 years thanks to a team, as in T-E-A-M, effort.
For three games, the marquee guys did all the lifting, heavy or otherwise. Paul Pierce, Ray Allen, Kevin Garnett, and Rajon Rondo were their All-Star selves often enough to put the Celtics ahead in this first-round series, 3-0.
But the primary reason the whole gang now will benefit from a week of rest and needed practice in advance of the inevitable confrontation with the Miami Heat was the play of the heavily criticized second unit, whose brilliant first-half play yesterday provided the necessary cushion in a series-clinching 101-89 conquest of the Knicks.
“The bench was terrific,’’ said coach Doc Rivers. “Paul was 1 for 10 at the half. Ray was 3 for 8 — I’m guessing on that one [correctly] — and we still had a big lead because of our bench.’’
Leading the way was Glen “Big Baby’’ Davis, who had been a physical and emotional no-show in Games 1-3. So desultory was his play in those games that it was almost an unfathomable concept that he ever had been a serious candidate for the league’s Sixth Man Award. The old Baby returned just when the team needed it, however, canning his first four jumpers en route to a 12-point, five-rebound half as the Celtics opened up a 55-38 halftime lead.
But it wasn’t just a matter of making some shots. For three games Davis was fighting the game. He looked miserable out there. Yesterday he submitted a Full Baby, making shots, ripping down rebounds, taking charges, and simply being his classic XXXX-factor self.
“I wasn’t really comfortable in those first three games,’’ Davis said. “Today I just went out there and played the game I’m supposed to play. I’m emotional. I can’t get down on myself and start worrying about things. But I just played my game.’’
Baby set the tone, but he wasn’t alone. Nenad Krstic, a basic no-show in the first three games, was uncommonly aggressive during his first turn on the floor. Jeff Green looked relaxed and efficient at both ends. And Delonte West had a firm hand on the throttle in place of the relentlessly dazzling Rondo (21 points, 12 assists, and 5 tough rebounds).
“Delonte West was a man,’’ said Rivers. “He was mad the last couple of days, searching for answers. They [bench players] all were.’’
With Allen in support of the bench quartet, the Celtics expanded a 29-23 one-quarter lead to 10 at 37-27 before Doc subbed Garnett and Pierce for Krstic and Green. By the time Rondo checked back in for West the lead was 11 (42-31), and with Davis regularly filling it up with his medium-range jumpers, it was 17, and at that point Jermaine O’Neal was sent in to give Baby a deserved respite. Green came back for Garnett and immediately drove for 2.
The bench, which had 4 points at halftime of Game 3, had scored 23 of the teams’ 55 points by halftime, led by Baby’s 12.
Rivers felt the key to Davis’s shooting was a very simple adjustment.
“You know what it was?’’ said Rivers. “He got back to his spot. We kept telling him: ‘Get closer.’ You saw what happened when he drifted out to 18 in the second half.’’
One word: boing. No, two: flat boing.
But, of course, nothing is ever that simple with Baby, who personally has aged Doc 10 months to a year since they met (you can probably double that for Rondo, with whom Rivers had a very animated fourth-quarter conversation at midcourt). Baby is a total prisoner of his emotions, and, for whatever reason, he was somewhere other than this series in the first three games. Fortunately for the Celtics, he checked himself into the series in time to inflict some heavy damage on the Knicks.
It’s not as if Davis doesn’t recognize his importance. For whatever reason, being Baby is just not easy.
“We were due for a game to help the starters,’’ he said. “Those guys can’t carry us all the time.’’
He did admit it was a relief to see the ball go through the basket for a change, especially that first jump shot. “Most definitely,’’ he said. “I don’t think I had hit a jump shot in the series.’’ None that mattered, anyway.
“That was very important for his game.’’ said Krstic. “We need him to play good.’’
Of near-equal importance to the general cause is the play of Green, who must spell both Pierce and Garnett. Slowly but surely, he is displaying the range of skill that made him the fifth pick of a draft. He can shoot it. He can put it on the floor. He can defend far better than some people think. He just needs to get comfortable playing with some powerful basketball personalities, and he says his whole situation is improving.
“I am a little more comfortable now,’’ he said. “I know my role. This series really helped. I am very much more comfortable than I was two weeks ago.’’
Rivers has no choice but to believe this superb bench performance was not isolated. He knows he will need a strong bench if his team has any hope of defeating the teams now ahead.
“But that’s the playoffs,’’ he said. “You go through a bad stretch and everybody says you’re terrible, but you have to fight through it. [Yesterday] the bench stopped worrying about things and just played. So now that we’ve won, I can say going through that adversity was a good lesson for us.’’
The eternal lesson of the playoffs is that a team cannot function on stars alone. And if the bench had not risen up in a big way yesterday, the Celtics would be getting ready for a Game 5. Stars always will matter, but in the end, T-E-A-Ms win championships.