On paper, the Battle of the Benches in the Celtics-Raptors series is the most lopsided event between America and Canada since the War of 1812.
Toronto’s bench erupted for a playoff-record 100 points Sunday while polishing off a four-game sweep of the Brooklyn Nets. Boston’s bench scored 78 points TOTAL in a four-game sweep of the Philadelphia 76ers. Serge Ibaka (31) had more made field goals in Round 1 than the nine bench players that Boston utilized combined (29).
All of which has caused a great deal of consternation among Celtics fans, many of whom have been grumbling about Boston’s bench since long before team brass elected to stay quiet on both the trade and buyout markets.
Now, as the Celtics and Raptors prepare for a series that feels like a seven-game battle in the making, it’s fair to ponder if bench play is Toronto’s greatest advantage.
Here’s one thing we’d stress: Don’t get overly hung up on the point production of second-unit players.
These are two very different teams in the way that benches are utilized. The Raptors, now devoid of the elite top-level talent in the aftermath of Kawhi Leonard’s departure, lean heavy on their depth for scoring and yearn for their bench players to take as many shots as they do. In the opening round of the playoffs, Raptors reserves took a staggering 37 shot attempts per game — easily the most among playoff squads and nearly four more than the next closest team (Lakers, 32.8 per game).
By comparison, Boston’s bench took only 17 shots per game in the team’s first-round series against the Sixers — the second lowest per-game total among playoff teams (only the Pacers took less at 15.3 per game).
Rewind to the postseason a year ago and one of Boston’s biggest issues was getting its star talent the right amount of shots. The Celtics’ talent glut conspired against the team with Marcus Morris and Terry Rozier combining for as nearly as many shots as Jaylen Brown and Gordon Hayward.
In order to ensure that Boston’s top-end talent would get the majority of shots this year, the Celtics purposely constructed a roster in which bench players have defined roles and ones that don’t require high shot volume. Enes Kanter gets the majority of his shots off putbacks, Brad Wanamaker thrives off transition opportunities, and Robert Williams shot 72.7 percent from the floor this season because most of his shots involve catching the ball above the rim.
Hayward’s sprained ankle, which is expected to sideline him for the duration of this series, adds a layer of difficulty to Boston’s bench production with Marcus Smart elevating to a starting role. To counter this, Celtics coach Brad Stevens often deployed Jayson Tatum or Brown with reserve-heavy lineups during Round 1 and was rewarded with some of the best production of the series.
A four-man lineup featuring Kanter, Wanamaker, Grant Williams and Tatum had a net rating of plus-92.6 in 13 minutes of floor time. That’s a small sample but Boston outscored Philadelphia by 21 points in that span, all while putting up 41 points on 69.6 percent shooting.
Overall, four of Boston’s five top net ratings from the first round belonged to reserves, including Kanter at a team-best plus-33.1, Grant Williams at plus-25.2, and Wanamaker at plus-19 (the same mark posted by Tatum).
To put it in simpler form: The Celtics outscored opponents by big numbers when Kanter (+34) and Wanamaker (+26) were on the floor. Grant Williams and Romeo Langford (both +13) were in the positive as well. Those four players combined for only 16.8 points per game — or 2.5 points less than Ibaka had on a nightly basis — and yet those bench minutes were huge in Boston quickly dispatching the Sixers.
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Five different Boston bench players finished with defensive ratings under 100. In the 28 minutes that Wanamaker and Kanter shared the floor, the Celtics had a defensive rating of 89.7 and a net rating of plus-84.1, as Boston outscored Philadelphia by 21 points in those 28 minutes.
All that said, Toronto will pose a far more daunting challenge for Boston’s reserves than Philadelphia and its anemic shooting did. What’s more, it puts a lot of pressure on guys like Tatum and Brown to carry those reserve lineups. If the starters on the floor go cold, Boston is prone to dangerous droughts, something we saw in Game 1 against the Sixers when Boston went five minutes without a basket spanning into the fourth quarter before Brown and Walker steadied the ship.
No one on the Boston bench has a role quite like Ibaka or Powell, two players who averaged more shots per game than Lowry in Round 1. Ibaka and Powell combined for 23.1 shots per game against the Nets. A year ago, with Leonard taking 20.7 shots per game during Toronto’s championship season, those two paired up for only 13.5 shots per game.
This is not to suggest the Raptors do not have a bench advantage. Ibaka, with his rim protection, could be one of the most impactful players in the series. Powell could be especially important if Lowry is at all hindered by his left ankle sprain. Toronto coach Nick Nurse has the luxury of going much deeper into his reserves if he needs to throw darts.
All of which the Celtics are quite aware of.
"Historically, they haven’t gone deep in their bench in playoff series. They’ve played their starters and their [top bench] guys a ton of minutes, but they clearly have great confidence in their bench, and obviously the bench had 100 points in their last game, and that’s been huge,” said Stevens. "The bench played really well against us in game 3 in Boston of our season series, where they beat us.
“With Gordon out, you’ve got one less high-minute guy. So you’re going to play your [bench] guys a little bit more, and I thought our guys have done a really great job of being malleable, adjusting to what their role is in a different game.”
One of the big questions for the Celtics is whether they can lean on Kanter in this series. He was a DNP during Boston’s lopsided win in the seeding round, a game in which Stevens deployed Robert Williams as a primary backup big.
Robert Williams’ rim-running ways could help the Celtics, but he played only 22 minutes in three appearances in Round 1. He had a couple of rough moments, including throwing away a pass trying to kick out for a 3-pointer when he had a clear path to a dunk in front of him. All that said, Williams has had bright moments inside the bubble, especially that Toronto seeding game, and the Celtics really need him to be ready for this moment.
But more than anything, Stevens says the Celtics need their reserves to put their stars in position to thrive.
"We’ve all got to be ready to help each other, and our biggest job, if you’re a role player on this team, is to accentuate the strengths of those other guys and the thing that I really like about our team is, after every game, our best players have taken the time in front of the whole team to single out those guys that have been giving up a little bit more. I think that says a lot about them.”