As closely as we follow the Celtics, it’s a source of frustration that we’re over a third of the way through the season and the bench – what it is, what it could be, what it might need – remains a mystery. With Delonte West having missed all but five games, with Nate Robinson forced into roles inappropriate to his skillset, with Jermaine O’Neal looking incapable of contributing anything of substance right now, with Kendrick Perkins‘ absence creating questions about who’ll play the 5-spot on the second unit, and with Semih Erden and Avery Bradley logging unexpected minutes, we’re left with a lot of guesswork as to the capabilities of this group.
Sherlock Holmes-style guesswork.
Last night, Marquis Daniels gave us a clearer look at how the puzzle pieces might fit together. At least at the small positions.
Forced into extended minutes when Robinson left with a cut over his eye, Daniels recorded perhaps his best game of the season. It was certainly his most versatile. Daniels put up 12 points, 5 rebounds, 4 assists, 1 steal and 2 blocks in a near-season high 31 minutes of action. His scoring brought the Celtics’ first unit back in the third quarter and his measured play at the PG-spot dictated tempo in the fourth.
More importantly, his ability to be used at three separate offensive and defensive positions created havoc for his former team.
Daniels joined the first unit with 4:21 left in the third quarter, with the Celtics trailing 60-53, checking TJ Ford. The 6’6″ Daniels has a full half-foot on Ford but can still stay in front of him on defense in the halfcourt. Much like Paul Pierce, Daniels manages to get where he wants to go on the floor, without ever looking like he’s moving very fast.
And on the offensive end of the floor, Daniels changed the game. The Pacers used both Brandon Rush and Ford on him in the third, but neither worked. With Ford covering him, Daniels backed his way to the paint and knocked down easy jumpers over late-arriving help. With Rush on him, the Celtics had a mismatch with Ford trying to cover Ray Allen. The Celtics went to that mismatch right away and Allen knocked down a baseline jumper.
In the fourth quarter, Daniels worked over another couple of Pacers. On one early set, he isolated James Posey on the wing and drove past him for a little 5-foot hook. And Darren Collison fared no better. Daniels controlled him on defense and the C’s had mismatches on offense (usually Allen on Collison) after Jim O’Brien finally stuck Mike Dunleavy on Daniels.
All these matchup advantages are predicated on the C’s going big at the small(er) positions.
The third quarter had Daniels out there with Pierce and Allen; all are at least 6’6”. The fourth quarter had Daniels out with Allen and Von Wafer (6’5″) before the starters returned. Projecting from these combinations, you can see a playoff scenario where Robinson is anchored to the bench in favor of Daniels and the Celtics’ wings exploit defenders in the post.
In fact, knowing we’ll usually see one starter out there with the reserves, particularly in the playoffs, I wonder if the ideal iteration for the second unit may eventually prove to be:
Delonte West at PG, Marquis Daniels at SG, Paul Pierce at SF
Delonte West at PG, Ray Allen at SG, Marquis Daniels at SF
That first trio’s success hinges on Daniels’ ability to stay in front of quicker shooting guards and the second on his ability to handle all manner of small forwards. Assuming he can do both (and, alas, stay healthy), this could be what we’ll see in the spring.
Daniels may yet prove to be, like he was last night, the C’s x-factor.