BOSTON -- When it comes to the Boston Celtics bench, change has become an inevitable reality to their existence this season.
And it won’t let up now that the playoffs have arrived and the Celtics know they’ll have to soldier on without Marcus Smart (oblique injury) for at least the first couple of rounds.
“It sucks,” said Boston’s Gordon Hayward. “He’s a huge part of our success; so many little things that he does for us on both ends of the court. It’s unfortunate. We’re going to all have to step up.”
As Hayward alluded to, the Celtics will need a collective effort to fill the void left by Smart, an effort that will once again result in changes to the team’s highly impactful second unit.
According to hoopsstats.com, the Celtics' second unit allowed a league-low 34.2 points per game this season. When you factor in that they were among the top-9 second units in scoring this season, it's clear that their play has been among the keys to Boston's success this season.
But Smart's injury will bring about change in terms of personnel and with that a definite tweak to the second unit’s identity as well.
Yes, the Celtics’ second unit indeed was a Bench With Attitude but that gritty mindset from the second unit did not translate into team success early on, which is why head coach Brad Stevens wound up plucking the two Marcus's - Smart and Morris - from the bench and inserting them into the starting lineup.
With Smart and Morris in the first unit, that starting five had more grit and a clear edge about them that was instrumental in Boston climbing its way out of the lower rungs in the East to finish with the fourth-best record overall.
This season, the starting five of Smart, Kyrie Irving, Jayson Tatum, Morris and Al Horford had an offensive rating of 115.2 with a net rating of +6.2 while shooting 50.4 percent from the field and 38.4 percent from 3-point range.
What the unit added in scoring punch and toughness, it lacked in size and strength, which became more of a factor as the season progressed which is in part why Stevens eventually decided to replace Morris with Aron Baynes.
It took both Brown and Hayward some time to adjust to coming off the bench, but both have been playing some of their best basketball of late, which only adds to the challenge facing Boston now that Stevens will likely pluck one of them from the second unit and into the starting lineup.
While Brad Stevens isn’t tipping his hand as to which way he’s leaning, Brown being re-inserted in the starting lineup is the likely route Boston will take.
No one player is going to replace what Smart brought to the table, but in Brown, Boston would be choosing the better defender over the better scorer.
And by keeping Hayward coming off the bench, it allows Boston’s second unit to have an elite scorer on the reserve unit who has been one of the team’s top scorers/playmakers down the stretch.
Regardless of whether Hayward starts or comes off the bench, his focus will remain the same.
“It’s continuing to execute our game plan; competing on both ends of the floor but make sure we’re locked in and focused on each possession,” said Hayward, who has reached double figures scoring in each of his last eight games played, which is a first for him as a Celtic.
And Brown has shown he can be effective both as a starter and coming off the bench lately.
Brown had started every game this season that he was healthy enough to play in (19 total), up until a nine-point loss to Dallas on Nov. 24.
After that, Brown would start just six more games.
In those six games, he averaged 16.5 points on 48.3 percent shooting from the field while connecting on 34.6 percent of his 3-point attempts.
And while the Celtics know that Smart won’t be able to make those game-changing plays that they have grown accustomed to him delivering, Brown remains convinced that Smart can still have a significant impact on this series.
“Marcus is a real big piece of our team in terms of intangibles and stuff,” Brown told NBC Sports Boston. “His spirit resonates through everybody in games, in practice. Just hearing his voice … we’re gonna still need that from him to help us do what we need to do.”
Click here to download the new MyTeams App by NBC Sports! Receive comprehensive coverage of your teams and stream the Celtics easily on your device.