BOSTON — Before the Celtics even conducted their first official practice of the 2018-19 season, Marcus Morris had already coined the “Bench With Attitude” nickname for a group of Boston reserves that yearned to impact games with their energy and grit.
But while enduring maddening inconsistencies to start the new season, the Celtics needed a little bit of that attitude on the first unit and coach Brad Stevens elevated Morris and Marcus Smart to the starting five last week, which helped spark a three-game win streak.
With the Celtics playing some of their most inspired basketball of the season, it appears Stevens will stick with the new-look starters on Thursday against the Knicks, even as incumbent starter Jaylen Brown returns from a three-game absence due to a back bruise. All of which could create a very intriguing new-look second unit helmed by Brown, Gordon Hayward, and Terry Rozier.
Call it the BWM: Bench With Motivation.
While the trio of Brown, Hayward, and Rozier has said all the right things about coming off the bench, it’s clear they’ve all got a little something extra to prove. Brown was the Celtics’ leading postseason scorer in last season's run to the fringe of the NBA Finals; Rozier made himself a household name while starting in place of Kyrie Irving in those playoffs; and Hayward is trying to assert himself as the All-Star we saw in Utah while working his way back from last season’s ankle fracture.
All three players have heard the grumbles of Celtics fans this season with some on social media seem ready to trade Brown or Rozier for the first decent offer. Hayward was the primary scapegoat when Boston’s first unit fizzled early in the season and he’s trying to use bench minutes now to find, as he coined it, “Old G.”
Rozier, whose future remains a story because he will be a restricted free agent this summer, admits the bench play hasn’t been as good as it could be and — as someone who was viewed as maybe the face of the bench and a potential Sixth Man of the Year candidate — he’s eager to start showing that he can be more impactful in his role.
"I’ve been saying since I been here with the second unit, we’ve got something to prove,” Rozier told NBC Sports Boston in a 1-on-1 interview Wednesday for Celtics Post Up. Catch the entire interview Friday night at 8:30 p.m. on NBCSB.
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“We're trying to come out and play harder than the first unit. That’s just a challenge to us. I feel like we’ve been pretty good but we can do even better.”
Rozier said he wants to be more active on the ball starting Thursday and knows his defense can still impact games even when he’s pressing a bit on offense. The Celtics’ offense has been 11.2 points per 100 possessions better when Rozier is off the court (110.3 offensive rating) as opposed to on (99.1 offensive rating, lowest among regulars).
Rozier said he’s aware of the negativity spewed at him on social media but he’s doing his best to block out the noise.
"I’m on social media, regardless. I live my life,” said Rozier. "I don’t try to live my life for other people or things like that. Obviously, there’s some negativity on there every day, whether it’s about me, whether it’s about anything in the world, there’s a lot of negativity. So you just try to balance that, control what you look at.”
Rozier can take solace in the fact that the person ahead of him on the point guard depth chart still believes strongly in Rozier's ability to impact winning.
"We just have that much confidence in [Rozier] and I’m such a big fan of his,” said Irving. "I said it plenty of times, he’s a starting guard in our league and it’s a unique position for him to be in, to be playing behind me, which is -- to have that much talent just sitting on the bench, it’s not something that’s normal. It’s not anything normal that he can be dealing with on a day-to-day basis but we try to support him as much as possible and, as well, me, just trying to get him as much advice and knowledge as we move forward.”
Brown said a move to the bench won’t diminish his confidence in himself.
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"I believe in my ability, the coaching staff believes in my ability, so I think that coming off the bench, I think people make it a bigger deal than what it really is,” said Brown. "At the end of the day, it's basketball. Hayward came off the bench the other day and had 30 points. That's a mindset and that's a choice.
"Coming out and having the right mindset and coming out and playing basketball, letting it take care of itself.”
On paper, a Rozier-Hayward-Brown trio should really thrive, both in reserve-heavy lineups and while integrating with the first unit. But little has gone to plan for the Celtics this season. Still, there’s a real opportunity here for this new-look bench to help Boston take flight.
They have no lack of motivation.
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