And almost all their praise should be placed squarely on the shoulders of the bench, a unit that's arguably become the most league's most formidable. Jared Sullinger and Courtney Lee are producing at levels above or at their expectations, Jeff Green has played like a Sixth Man of the Year contender over the past two weeks and while Jason Terry has been struggling with his shot, his confidence initiating sets and taking on more of a scoring role has definitely improved.
He may not be a capable defender, but moving forward, Terry's money will be earned creating easy looks at the basket for his teammates. Here he is executing a smooth pick-and-roll with Sullinger.
An easy explanation for all this success is the return of Avery Bradley, who’s provided rotational stability and unparalleled defensive pressure.
But as good as Bradley has been, on a technical level he probably isn't one of the five best players on his own team. Doc Rivers doesn’t call more than one or two plays per game to get him an open look, and defenses don’t treat him as a priority when they’re going over their game plan.
His impact has been positive, but it hasn’t been surprising, and when you look at Bradley's on/off numbers (Boston's defense has allowed 9.1 fewer points per 100 possessions with Bradley on the bench), he can't take sole credit for wins over the Indiana Pacers, Atlanta Hawks, New York Knicks(without Rajon Rondo), Phoenix Suns and Houston Rockets.
In their last 10 games, the Celtics have been 18.6 points per 100 possessions better with Sullinger on the court and 11.4 points per 100 possessions better with Lee on the court. (Those two point differentials lead the team.) Jeff Green is fifth, with the Celtics 0.4 points per 100 possessions better than their opposition when he’s on the court.
Sullinger has become a colossal force on the offensive glass, single-handedly lifting Boston from last place in team offensive rebounding numbers (when he's on the court the Celtics grab 26.4 percent of their own misses, which would boost them from 29th to 19th in the league).
The starting lineup of Brandon Bass, Bradley, Rajon Rondo, Paul Pierce and Kevin Garnett has actually played poorly since coming together, allowing 4.3 points per 100 possessions more than they're scoring. Meanwhile, Garnett, Green, Lee, Terry and Sullinger (Boston's third most used five-man unit this season) is scoring an insane 120.5 points per 100 possessions while allowing 88.8.
Why is this? Well, more times than not all five of those guys are flat out better than the men they're guarding and attacking. Green is the most notable example; lately he's been embarrassing opposing defenders off the dribble while knocking down the occasional three-pointer.
Weighted in a vacuum, Green may not be worth $9 million per season. But against back up swingmen, he is.
Earlier in the season, Boston's most pressing question was how they could stop the bleeding when Garnett needed to rest. The options of Chris Wilcox, Jason Collins, Brandon Bass and Sullinger simply weren't getting it done. But lately they seem to have found an answer. In their last seven games, the Celtics are holding opponents to 83 points per 100 possessions when Garnett takes a seat on the bench, which would be the league's best defense.
Much of this is due to Sullinger and Bass, who've more than held their own as a pair of semi-dependable back line defenders (and in Bass' case, a half-decent shot blocker). Bradley and Lee pressuring the ball up top and has also made it more difficult for offenses to enter the paint for high percentage shots, almost taking away the need for an above average rim protector to replace Garnett.
Given the small sample size, all of these numbers should regress to the mean, but the improvement can't be ignored. Boston's bench players are fundamentally playing with more confidence, and with more knowledge of Doc Rivers' offensive and defensive systems.
Don't expect the bench to outscore the starters (as they did against the Phoenix Suns on January 9) on a regular basis, but do expect them to play reliable basketball. Their days of blowing severe leads appear to be over.
Is their bench better than the Clippers, Nuggets, Warriors or Knicks? Right now it's too early to say, but the Celtics certainly have the talent to make a case. If they can keep their play up on a consistent level, it'll be difficult not to include them in any "best bench" conversation.
All statistics in this article can be found at NBA.com/Stats
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