- Chris Forsberg, Celtics reporter, ESPNBoston.com
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BOSTON -- For the 2010 Celtics, the comparisons to the championship squad of two seasons ago were inevitable, particularly after clinching the Eastern Conference title, and especially after the Lakers advanced out of the West, setting up a rematch of the 2008 NBA Finals.
So it was 11 days ago now that, fresh off topping Orlando to take a 2-0 series lead over the Magic, Celtics captain Paul Pierce first got quizzed about comparing the 2008 and 2010 squads. He immediately dismissed the chatter, pleading for patience.
"You guys ask me these questions about 2008, there's no comparison in the teams," said Pierce. "You guys want to make them similar, make them different, make them better. That's a completely different year. New players are trying to develop our own identity. Whatever happened then, it's not the same, man. We're trying to develop our own identity by winning a championship.
"There's definitely similarities in some of the players, but we added new players, and the road is a lot different. You talk about comparisons, it's different. The only way to talk about this is if we win a championship, then you can ask me. Then I'll be able to tell you better."
Fair enough. And while it's hard to argue with Pierce's logic that you can't compare the two teams until Version 2010 raises a Larry O'Brien trophy, it's simply too tempting to resist.
Boiled down, the comparison is actually pretty simple to make, considering Boston's starting five is exactly the same. Sure, you can make the case that Rajon Rondo is performing at a level much higher than where he was at in 2008 -- and that's indisputable. But you can also say that his progression simply offsets the decline of an aging Big Three. Put it this way: Kevin Garnett played around 40 minutes per game at the start of the 2008 Finals and averaged 18.2 points per game that series; he's unlikely to come close to those numbers this time around.
So what's changed for Boston's bench since 2008? Everything, actually.
Two years ago, the Celtics leaned on a four-man supporting cast of James Posey, P.J. Brown, Leon Powe, and Sam Cassell. It's easy to forget, but Eddie House was out of the rotation at the start of the Finals before fighting his way back in by providing a spark in pivotal Game 4. That's almost an identical trajectory for Nate Robinson, the player House was traded for in February.
The 2008 reserves went their separate ways quickly. After winning the crown, Brown and Cassell retired, while Posey cashed in with New Orleans (only to be a bit of a disappointment) and Powe left town after suffering another knee injury at the end of the 2009 season.
Boston's current bench stars Tony Allen and Glen Davis, two players who simply filled out the 2008 reserves and couldn't get on the floor in the Finals. That would seem to suggest that the bench of two seasons ago was far superior.
Statistics, however, dispute that notion.
Utilizing what's primarily been a four-man rotation of Davis, Allen, Rasheed Wallace and Michael Finley, Boston's bench is averaging 23.1 points per game this postseason. The 2008 bench averaged 21.9 points per game in the playoffs.
"We added some new pieces," said Pierce. "It's the same starting five, but we added veteran key players as well as guys that have been here before. ... The biggest improvements since the championship team are Big Baby, Rondo and Tony Allen. Those guys are major additions and playing more in this title run. With the addition of Rasheed, who has a title, and the addition of Michael Finley, who has a title, I think we have more depth than in the past."
More depth? That's debatable. Bigger contributions? No debating that.
Wallace spent the regular season underperforming so mightily that his postseason averages of 6.5 points, 2.3 rebounds and 0.2 assists per game actually seem like above-average production.
Allen has been slowed slightly by an ankle injury suffered in Game 2 of the Magic series, but remains a defense-first guard who can both handle the ball and provide an offensive spark when needed.
But it might be Davis who has been the biggest breakthrough of all. A year after averaging 15.8 points, 5.6 rebounds and 1.8 assists per game while starting in place of Kevin Garnett, Davis' numbers have returned to earth, but he's developed a reputation as a gritty forward who's not afraid to take the charge or get dirty under the offensive glass.
Big Baby won't remind anyone of Posey (don't forget his defense against Kobe in the 2008 Finals), who cashed in to the tune of four years, $25 million with the Hornets, but Davis' offensive stats suggest maybe we can compare the two:
Rivers challenged Davis to be a more consistent presence this season, and he's responded by displaying more consistency than ever in the postseason.
"I just think he matured, he understands the urgency every night," Rivers said of Davis. "After the big games, we used to joke that he wanted a parade. ... Now he just comes back ready to work."
Injuries are a major factor for Boston as Thursday's Game 1 approaches. Wallace is battling back spasms that have persisted through the final two games of the Magic series, while Davis suffered a concussion in Game 5 against Orlando, though he played in Game 6 on Friday. Allen's ankle remains tender after he twisted it in Game 2.
The Lakers' bench is likewise solidified as compared to the 2008 version, mostly because the addition of Ron Artest to the starting lineup bumped Sasha Vujacic to a supporting role. Lamar Odom might be the best sixth man the Celtics have seen this postseason (though J.J. Redick was fantastic for Orlando), while Shannon Brown provides a jolt of energy and athleticism.
The other big addition for the Lakers from the 2008 Finals is center Andrew Bynum, who was sidelined for that series with a dislocated kneecap. He'll likely play limited minutes in this series with a slight tear of the meniscus in his right knee, but he nevertheless adds a presence in the middle that was missing for Los Angeles the first time around.
The Celtics assembled their bench with the idea that the reserves would restore them to a championship-caliber level. Injuries to Kevin Garnett and Powe last season exposed the Celtics' paper-thin depth, and left them flying to Detroit to lull Wallace to the Hub.
"I thought our second unit a year ago was a little young," Pierce said back in October. "Now we've got some veteran guys that understand the game, they understand the chemistry. They're getting it."
They got it, but lost it. Boston's bench underperformed at times during the 2010 campaign. Marquis Daniels, expected to be a versatile member of the second unit, injured his thumb in November, lost all his confidence and slid to the end of the bench.
House never found his shot, one season after breaking Danny Ainge's single-season team record for 3-point percentage, and was dealt to the Knicks in order to shake things up in mid-February, even if Robinson has offered little in terms of production.
Wallace sleepwalked through the regular season and still hasn't lived up to expectations. But all will be forgotten if Boston emerges with Banner 18.
Back in October, Daniels noted, ""[The second unit is] going to be key."
He was telling the truth. And with a quality Finals against the Lakers, the bench might ultimately be what makes the 2010 Celtics better than their 2008 counterparts.
Chris Forsberg covers the Celtics for ESPNBoston.com. Follow him on Twitter.
Names have changed from '08, but Celts bench could again be big.