Why Payton Pritchard, Sam Hauser are showing the Celtics’ bench is a strength, not a problem

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In mid-December, Boston Celtics coach Joe Mazzulla made it clear he never considered his team’s second unit a potential problem area.

“For you guys (that was a talking point),” Mazzulla said. “Not for me. I wasn’t worried.”

Maybe. But to those outside the Celtics, questions about the team’s second unit seemed fair. Though the Celtics’ offseason could be considered a success in hindsight, they also let several impact players leave without replacing them. They declined to match Grant Williams’ contract offer from the Dallas Mavericks. They swapped two rotation pieces for one in the Jrue Holiday trade — and not just any rotation pieces, but the 2023 Sixth Man of the Year, Malcolm Brogdon, and a 2022 all-defense center, Robert Williams III. The Celtics had a loaded starting lineup, but how much would they suffer when relying heavily on the end of their rotation?

Not much. Not much at all. The Celtics’ bench, helpful all season, has been on another level lately, helping the team rattle off nine straight victories. Boston hasn’t been fully healthy once during this streak but has still won eight of those nine games by double figures while putting up a dominant 18.8 net rating throughout the stretch. Holiday, Jaylen Brown and Kristaps Porziņģis missed Saturday night’s game against the Chicago Bulls, but the Celtics still prevailed 124-113 on the second night of a road back-to-back. Afterward, Chicago guard Coby White raved about Boston’s ability to sustain its level of play regardless of who’s in the lineup.

“It don’t really matter who plays for them,” White told reporters. “They all play very well together. They stick to their identity.”

The Celtics have done that all season, but this latest streak has only highlighted their ability to thrive while short-handed. Porziņģis has missed six games during this stretch. Holiday has missed five. Brown and Al Horford have each missed three. Jayson Tatum has missed two. Even the ironman Derrick White has missed one. And still, the Celtics have won their past nine games by 155 combined points. The competition has often been weak, but even so, they have overcome key absences. With a chance to do more, the bench has stepped up.

Over those nine games, Payton Pritchard has averaged 13.9 points and 5.8 assists per game while shooting 47.0 percent from the field, including 43.6 percent on 3-point attempts. Since Holiday’s injury four games ago, Pritchard’s numbers have been even stronger. The point guard could always shoot but has shown off a more well-rounded game this season. He has drastically improved his finishing; he’s easily on pace to set a career high while shooting 71 percent from within 4 feet of the basket. He has been more aggressive lately off the bounce, regularly outmuscling defenders near the rim. That has helped him score in the double figures in eight of the past nine games.

Pritchard’s connection with Sam Hauser has been apparent all season. Nobody has assisted Hauser more times than Pritchard (42). The Celtics, who have a 15.1 net rating with both players on the court this season, have outscored opponents by an eye-opening 61 points during the most recent 98 such minutes. That stat illustrates how potent Boston has been lately with its two bench sharpshooters on the court. It helps that Hauser essentially stopped missing several games ago. He has drilled 21 3-pointers over his past three games. He might have had even more had he not sprained his left ankle with eight minutes left in the third quarter of a win against the Washington Wizards while 10 of 13 from behind the arc.

Even when Hauser is not breathing flames, teams need to account for him whenever he’s on the court.

“I think he’s a key to their success,” Detroit Pistons coach Monty Williams said recently. “When you can bring a guy off the bench that the back side of your defense has to absolutely hug when you’re running isos and pick-and-rolls and driving to the paint, I don’t know what the analytics would say about a guy like that, how many points he generates just from a spacing component. I don’t know if they have metrics for that, but he’s that guy. And he can get it off quickly. He’s got great size.”

Pritchard and Hauser haven’t been alone in delivering a major impact among the Celtics’ regular bench players. Horford has averaged 14.8 points and 5.8 rebounds per game on 57.1 percent field goal shooting (52.8 percent on 3-point attempts) while starting six games during this streak. Luke Kornet had 14 points and six rebounds against the Phoenix Suns; 12 points, nine rebounds and six assists against the Utah Jazz; and 8 points, 13 rebounds and four assists against Chicago. Xavier Tillman and Oshae Brissett have chipped in with defense and energy. After helping the Celtics beat the Jazz without Horford and Porziņģis, Kornet said he enjoyed the chance to play more minutes.

“Honestly, I feel like these games are a lot of fun if we’re down a couple of starters,” Kornet said. “Just from the aspect of certain guys being able to play a little bit more in different lineups and just being able to figure it out.”

When the Celtics have a full roster, the bench will not always get as many minutes or shot attempts. Hauser scored in double figures twice over 12 games between Feb. 7 and March 11. Pritchard, who has gone scoreless seven times, has fallen shy of double digits in 43 of his 71 games. But with as much talent as the Celtics have, it’s important to look deeper than scoring when evaluating their bench.

The team has kept up its brand of basketball regardless of the lineup on the court. The Celtics are 8-0 without Brown this season, 9-1 without Holiday, 19-3 without Porziņģis, 3-2 without White and 4-1 without Tatum. Boston’s net rating with Tatum on the bench (10.7) is better than what the 2015-16 Golden State Warriors rolled up (10.6) while setting an NBA record with 73 regular-season wins. The bench players have done their jobs whether in their usual roles or as replacements in the starting lineup. Lately, with more opportunity, those bench players have shown they have more to their games when given an expanded role.

Questions remain about how the bench players will fare in the postseason, when opponents hammer on every weakness. But a preponderance of evidence suggests Boston’s bench has been a strength this season. The recent evidence, even against some iffy competition, suggests the second unit can do even more when asked.

(Photo of Payton Pritchard: Maddie Meyer / Getty Images)

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