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The Benchmark

 

Courtesy of Matty Smith

One of the most underlying story-lines of this Finals series has been the battle of the benches.  Before the series started, I felt the Celtics bench had a distinct advantage.  An advantage I felt needed to be exploited if the Celtics had any chance to take this series from the defending Champions.  It is nice to say that through five games, the Celtics’ reserves have done nothing but exceed my expectations.

An NBA bench cannot change the world.  The minutes a bench plays in comparison to their team’s respective starters only begets small samples sizes that provide little meaningful information.  Most of the impact an NBA bench produces comes from moments through out specific games were momentum was either saved or taken or the unexpected became a pleasant surprise.  This has not been the case in the 2010 NBA Finals.

The Boston bench has outscored the Lakers’ every single game except for Sunday night’s Game five victory where a Jordan Farmar free throw proved the difference.  The Boston bench has also played more minutes than the Lakers’ bench in every single game save for Sunday night’s victory where the Lakers relied on over ten minutes of Sasha Vujacic and seven minutes of Luke Walton.

The Celtics’ bench has also been the model of consistency in this series.  Doc Rivers has essentially been provided four guys that he is confident can play over ten reliable minutes in the NBA Finals.  Glen Davis leads the way with the most minutes off the bench but the Celtics get meaningful contributions all the way down to Nate Robinson- the member that averages the least.  Least due to necessity, not to a lack of trust.  The truth of the matter is, Robinson is used almost exclusively when the Celtics need more outside shooting or when Rajon Rondo is completely maxed out in terms of consecutive minutes played.

Like Robinson, every other member of the Celtics bench that has seen extended minutes this season has a significant and specialized role. While he gets most of his accolades for unexpected spurts of offensive production, Glen Davis makes it into the game by the end of every first quarter by way of his defensive versatility.  Davis has shown an ability to use his bulk  to size-up Andrew Bynum and his quick feet to stay with Lamar Odom. That last bit may have been an understatement.  Glen Davis has thoroughly outplayed Lamar Odom this entire series much to the surprise of most.  One look at their respective stat lines from each of the first five games is enough to make even the most die-hard Laker fan concur:

Davis                                                        Odom

Game 1    3 pts, 3 rebounds, in 18 minutes        5 pts, 4 rebounds, 21 minutes
Game 2    8 pts, 7 rebounds, in 18 minutes        3 pts, 5 rebounds, 15 minutes
Game 3    12 pts, 3 rebounds, in 24 minutes    12 pts, 5 rebounds, 28 minutes
Game 4    18 pts, 5 rebounds, in 23 minutes    10 pts, 7 rebounds, 39 minutes
Game 5    0 pts, 3 rebounds, in 13 minutes        8 pts, 8 rebounds, in 26 minutes

Game 4 is the most obvious kicker and Game 5 seems like a regression in Davis’ play, however, a quick perspective check will demonstrate something entirely different.  In a game where the Lakers desperately needed Lamar Odom to show up in a big way they got a paltry 8 points and 8 rebounds.  The Celtics, on the other hand, could have afforded to give Glen Davis the night off given how well the starters were playing and how no Celtics Big Man garnered more than four fouls for the entire game.

If you were to tell me that the disparity between Odom and Davis reads the way it does before this series started I would have claimed sabotage.  The Odom no-show and Davis step-up is almost appalling when actually examined.

Davis’ Big Man bench counter-part, Rasheed Wallace, has been similarly impressive on the defensive end.  Since almost exclusively playing Pau Gasol since Game 2, Wallace has frustrated Gasol by being able to neutralize his biggest asset: his length.  Wallace has been effective by playing hard in limited minutes.  He has also done a masterful job of switching gears from trying to push around Dwight Howard to trying to dance around Pau Gasol.  This transition of physicality to finesse should not be understated- especially since neither was expected from Wallace a few months ago.

Right before the playoffs began, writers everywhere felt that any production Wallace could provide the Celtics was the most for which they could hope.  Now, that assertion is only half true.  Wallace can be relied on to provide excellent defense on Pau Gasol with any offense being the added bonus (think Sunday night’s momentous three point make).

Like Wallace, Tony Allen has been given one specific defensive job and all other benefits that may occur are simply by lucky happen-stance.  This includes the amazing block Allen had on Pau Gasol, which in my recap of Game Five I dubbed “a play so nice he blocked it twice.” Tony Allen plays nearly 15 minutes per game trying to do one thing: stop Kobe Bryant.  According to ESPN Stats and Information, Allen had limited Bryant to 20 points on 73 possessions through the first four games.  This number is even more impressive considering Kobe Bryant is being seriously considered for the Finals MVP award whether or not the Lakers win.  This feat would be based exclusively on his offensive prowess this series.  20 points on 73 possessions.  Damn.

Along with each Celtics bench player knowing his specific role, one of their biggest strengths is also Rivers’ consistency in his implementation.  While those four guys on the Celtics’ pine can almost guarantee their friends and family that they’ll be getting some TeeVee time with their warm-ups off, the Lakers’ bench has not been so lucky.  Similar to the way Phil Jackson tried to motivate his team in the fourth quarter of Game 5 by reminding them of the Celtics’ regular season late-game woes, he has been grasping for straws trying to find the right kind of bench players to combat the C’s.

In Game One, Doc Rivers put veteran Michael Finley in the game to spell Paul Pierce.  At the time, it made complete sense.  Finley, a former champion with years of spectacular service has shown in spot duty to be very effective.  After two minutes and two successful Shannon Brown “blow-bys”, Finley was replaced and has yet to see the floor again.  The same can be said for Shelden Williams, who in Game Two was given four minutes to run the floor and attempt to rebound over the Lakers’ Bigs.  Four minutes and two turnovers later, Williams has yet to get his warm ups off again.

Phil Jackson, on the other hand, has been playing a bit of Dr. Frankenstein with his reserves.  In the first four games of this series, Shannon Brown had either been the first or second guy off the bench.  In Game Five, Brown only logged 20 seconds.  Jackson has also been platooning the most ineffective two-headed monster in Sasha Vujacic and Luke Walton as the Lakers try to weather any storm that the Celtics can cause with Ron Artest and Kobe Bryant off the floor.  Between the two of them, Walton and Vujacic have scored 12 points and snagged 10 rebounds all while playing under-whelming defense on the Celtics’ heavy hitters.

Jordan Farmar has been the lone bright spot for the Lakers as he has played with a sense of urgency every time he enters the game.  Unfortunately for the Blue and Gold this type of attitude has not made its way to the rest of the bench.

As the start of Game Six is now less than twenty-four hours away, NBA fans can expect little to change in terms of how both benches are used.  It is highly doubtful Doc Rivers will add any kind of new wrinkle to the Celtics bench while there is a high probability that Phil Jackson has yet to really settle on a rotation.

Not all of this discrepancy in production can be blamed on differences in talent and employment.  Most of it is match-ups.  The Celtics bench simply matches up extremely well with both the Lakers’ bench and starters.  Enough to play more minutes and have more responsibility.

The Celtics will have to do a lot of things on Tuesday if they hope to be holding the Larry O’Brien Trophy by the end of the night.  Some of these include keeping up with their recent offensive and defensive consistency, and rebounding and limiting turnovers is always appreciated.  Perhaps just as important are the guys who still wear warm-ups when the ball goes up.  They may not get the glory or the salary of a starter but I doubt that means much of anything if they get to hold up the gold on Tuesday.

  • AJ

    Great Post!

    The Bench has obviously been one of the biggest difference-makers in this series, and you did a great job breaking it down, particularly on an individual basis.

    Going forward, however, I’m expecting the game to be called quite a bit harder on the Celtics, and consequently, we might have to rely a lot more on our bench than we may like. That, or Ray will have to have another good night =P (knock on wood)

  • Eran

    Nice pic. I would highlight big baby’s drool in red.

  • urbeltic

    With Bynum done, the Lakers don’t have a true bench. They have people who PJ will put in to give a starter a rest. The C’s have a true bench, and when Doc takes a guy out and puts a Rasheed in, or a Big Baby in, or a Nate in, he is doing something that directly changes the course of action on the court at that moment (for better or worse at times) which forces PJ to make a counter change, or at least consider it. Its not simply about giving a guy a rest for the Cs. Its a huge advantage.

  • Nick C.

    I hope the refereeing doesn’t magically change tonight. I’m happy with the past two games.

    Also, I agree that the benches will be critical to a Game 6 win, whether it’s to spell players in foul trouble or it’s to outplay the Lakers’ reserves to give the starters a breather and keep them fresh.

  • Ersatz

    Kobe for MVP in this series is the most ridiculous thing I’ve ever heard. He plays okay or good when his team loses but bad when his team wins. What a stupid thought. If a Laker should win it, it should be Gasol, who actually, you know, helps his team. People really need to get off Kobe’s sack.

  • Ersatz

    I think Doc was really smart to give the bench a short leash last game. They weren’t going to do that two games in a row. But tonight I think we could use, I think, after the long flight and short rest. Shrek and Donkey need to play well tonight.

  • Coolin

    Game 6 is on our starters tonight. If we are expecting to win, than Ray will need to wake from his offensive slumber, Rondo will need to play under control, Garnett will need to stay out of foul trouble, Perkins will need to stay out of foul trouble and pass the ball unless he has a easy dunk, we need Paul Pierce to play HUGE in front of his hometown crowd and lastly Doc Rivers needs to out coach Phillip “the shit talker” Jackson.

  • dont_drink_the_koolaid

    great post – articulated the advantage very well. the bench has been huge this series…..i mean if you think about the contributions you want from each of them…..they nail it in every single category. simply amazing role play. doc needs to get a ton of credit for that.

    the baby / odom numbers really surprised me……odom is usually better at home so hope baby can stay even-steven.

    i’m still feeling finley hitting a big shot in this series. maybe celtics down 1 or 2 on the last possession, finley subs in, lakers help off him, nails the buzzer beater for the title.

    kobe does not deserve mvp – i think he shot them out of game5…..good for TV and his ego, bad for winning basketball games. i vote for KG if Cs win….he hasn’t dominated, but he’s been a rock every single game (except game1).

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