Something in reserve? Celtics' second unit besting starters early in camp

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WALTHAM, Mass. — While the White team (reserves) was besting the Green team (starters) during the Boston Celtics‘ intrasquad scrimmage at TD Garden on Friday night, president of basketball operations Danny Ainge noted that the second unit had been dominating scrimmages during the early portion of training camp, having won three straight mini-game sessions.

Celtics fans can take this news one of two ways: Either the reserves are playing at an extremely high level or the starters have limped out of the gate. Given the rave reviews coming out of camp for the backup backcourt of Marcus Smart and Terry Rozier, it’s fair to assume it might be a bit more the former than the latter.

That would be good news for a Boston squad that is hoping to distinguish itself with depth. The addition of Al Horford seemingly fortifies a first unit that returns four starters in Isaiah Thomas, Avery Bradley, Jae Crowder and Amir Johnson. Getting contributions from multiple players on the bench would give the team another boost.

Entering camp, one of the biggest concerns was how Boston would replace Evan Turner, a Swiss army knife of a bench weapon who placed fifth in last year’s Sixth Man of the Year voting. Early returns suggest Smart, Rozier and rookie Jaylen Brown might be capable of filling that void by committee. Those three teamed with Jonas Jerebko and Tyler Zeller at the start of Friday’s intrasquad scrimmage.

“Tyler’s a guy that’s started, played a lot in this league already in his fifth year; Jonas has played a lot in this league; Terry and Marcus are clearly playing at a really, really good level; and Jaylen has done a good job of being in the mix with those guys and learning those guys,” Celtics coach Brad Stevens said. “So it’s good. It’s good to have that kind of competition [between first and second units]. You want it that way.”

While Horford gets acclimated to his new teammates, the other dominant storylines in camp have been Rozier’s ready-for-the-rotation play and Smart’s revamped shooting form. Jerebko settled into a role as an energy guy off the bench last season before elevating to a starting role in the postseason.

Sprinkle in glimpses of Brown’s raw athleticism (including some loud dunks from the No. 3 pick in this year’s draft) and the possibility that Zeller can get a bit of a jump start after living in the land of DNP last season because of an overstocked frontcourt, and it’s easy to see why there’s a lot of buzz about Boston’s second unit.

The Celtics’ reserves will get a further jolt when veteran Gerald Green, another offseason addition, is healthy enough to get back on the floor after sitting out the early days of camp because of a minor hip-flexor injury. Floor-stretching big man Kelly Olynyk‘s surgically repaired shoulder will be reevaluated in mid-October as the team looks to get him involved in contact drills again.

Could the bench get even better?

“We’ve been saying maybe [the bench’s domination is] because [the starters are] a little older or something,” joked Bradley, who is Boston’s longest-tenured player but is still only 25 years old and the youngest starter on the Celtics. Boston’s starters are a rough average of 27 years old; Friday’s five-man bench trends closer to 24.

Added Bradley: “I don’t know, but we’ve been beating them in all the half-court [drills]. They just beat us when we play full court.”

Before the second-unit hype train starts gaining too much steam, a brief cautionary tale. This sort of chatter occurs an awful lot during training camps around the league. Rarely did a year go by toward the end of Boston’s most recent Big Three era when someone — Jermaine O’Neal, Chris Wilcox, Jeff Green or Marquis Daniels — was supposed to push Boston’s bench over the top. Rarely did it translate to sustained regular-season contributions.

For their part, Boston’s reserves don’t seem to be getting too cocky about their early camp triumphs.

“That just shows that [the first-unit] guys are going to make us better,” Smart said. “And, on top of that, we’re pushing those guys to reach their talent and capabilities and potential, and for us to go out there and do the things that we did and beat those guys shows a lot about this team in general.”

With the way Stevens limits minutes for his starters, a quality bench could be vital to Boston’s overall success. Assistant general manager Mike Zarren tweeted before the start of camp, “There’s no deeper team,” after watching Boston’s players participate in informal pickup games. Boston’s bench is filled out by youngsters Jordan Mickey, R.J. Hunter, James Young and Demetrius Jackson, all of whom are still trying to find roles.

All that said, it’s important to remember that much of Boston’s success this season will ultimately be dictated by the five guys who hear their names announced at the start of games. The Celtics probably wouldn’t mind if the Green team was dominating sessions by the end of camp.



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