The very instant that Max Strus started stumbling, Malik Fitts sprang into action.
A little crossover move by Marcus Smart sent Strus staggering to the floor during the Eastern Conference Finals and, before Smart could cap the highlight sequence with a pull-up jumper over Strus’ prone body, Fitts’ mind was racing through his encyclopedia of sideline celebrations.
There are few players in the league with a revelry bag as deep as Fitts, an undrafted 24-year-old forward who had spent the past two years bouncing around the NBA on 10-day contracts hoping to find a home. Boston came calling in late February with multiple vacancies in the aftermath of their trade deadline maneuvering.
Fitts didn’t score a single point in two trash-time appearances while on a pair of 10-day contracts but he distinguished himself with his bench energy. And it soon became clear to Boston brass that there was a value in having a collection of end-of-the-roster players whose biggest role would be supporting the core of the team as Boston surged in the second half of the season.
Sensing the magnitude of the moment as Strus pulled himself off the floor, Fitts launched into action.
“If you ever played Mortal Kombat, there’s Scorpion and he has this move where he brings them back,” said Fitts, explaining the famous, ‘Get over here!” rope dart move that bellowed inside arcades throughout the early 90s. Fitts got in a squat and repeatedly pulled at the lasso to the delight of Boston’s bench. “I used that when a guy gets crossed over or he stumbles.”
You could easily put together an entire highlight reel of Fitts’ reaction this season. When a player heats up, he’ll start dancing in front of the bench. Or he might dip into his seemingly endless collection of air guitars and strum a tune.
“Malik is creative. You gotta give him that, and he's also very physical,” said backup big man Luke Kornet. “He’s a very physical performer. Like comedians, he’s got different kinds of things. He explores the space.”
The Celtics have six players — Fitts, Kornet, Juwan Morgan, Matt Ryan, Nik Stauskas, Brodric Thomas, and Sam Hauser — who either elevated from two-way deals or were swooped up along this wild 2021-22 journey to fill open roster spots.
The sextet doesn’t take this opportunity for granted. Ryan was driving for Door Dash and working at a cemetery a year ago to make some extra money while pondering the next step in his NBA journey. Now this ragtag group is crisscrossing the country on private planes with the possibility of securing a championship ring.
“To be in the Finals, it's just a dream,” said Ryan. “From where I was a year ago, to where I am now — I mean nobody would even believe it. And I can't even believe it. I'm just enjoying every second of it. I'm sure people can see that from how we celebrate on the bench. But this is incredible.”
Ryan had caught the attention of the Celtics in the G-League with his 3-point shooting prowess and Brad Stevens called after Ryan got an invite to join the 2022 FIBA World Cup qualifying team in February. Ryan signed to one of Boston’s open two-way spots in late February after Hauser got bumped to the parent roster.
Ryan’s signature moment might have been after Jayson Tatum’s buzzer-beating layup to win Game 1 against the Brooklyn Nets. Despite not dressing for the game, Ryan, who was celebrating his 25th birthday, was one of the first to spring off the Boston bench. Him, Fitts, and Aaron Nesmith were the first to reach Tatum for a celebratory flying body bump.
The key for these bench players is staying engaged. They have a particular fondness for Derrick White highlights — “his recent fatherhood is big,” said Kornet — and love when certain game plan elements manifest themselves during gameplay. But their biggest joy might come whenever 36-year-old Al Horford has a big moment.
After a loud Horford tip dunk against the Bucks in the East semis, the bench lost its collective mind. Ryan started doing an airplane on the baseline while Fitts playfully pretended to faint and needed Nesmith and Morgan to keep him from upright.
“Malik has been the most animated,” admitted Ryan. “But I think we’re all bringing some great energy. We’re all just trying to play a role in this.”
What you don’t see is that sextet on the court before every game playing 3-on-3 games with assistant coaches and trying to develop their skills. The lopsided nature of these playoff games has afforded an opportunity for the group to see game action, including in the Finals. And it’s telling to watch the veterans get excited for the younger players in those moments, returning the favor by celebrating their successes.
The Celtics’ veterans actually got a bench technical earlier in the season when Payton Pritchard had a late-game 3-point barrage in Portland. The vibes have only gotten better from there with the current end-of-the-roster group staying positive throughout this roller coaster ride.
And they’re going to keep dancing — even if not everyone loves watching them.
“[Daniel] Theis is is the one who tells me to sit down. That’s a big thing of our relationship, him trying to squash my joy,” quipped Kornet. "I feel bad for [fans] behind the bench … but then there's also certain times in the game where it's like supporting your team kind of takes over.”