- Chris Forsberg, Celtics reporter, ESPNBoston.com
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BOSTON -- The Boston Celtics' bench players have been outscored by opposing reserves in eight of the team's last nine games and 11-of-16 tilts overall. On Friday, the Celtics' bench was outscored by a whopping 63-29 margin, and Boston's four chief reserves (Glen Davis, Marquis Daniels, Nate Robinson and Semih Erden) were a combined minus-52 in plus/minus on a night Boston's starting five was a combined plus-96.
A bunch of statistics aren't needed to tell why this is happening. The Celtics have been playing shorthanded essentially since the start of the season, and the bench hasn't been able to develop any consistency or rhythm.
Coach Doc Rivers admitted it's unfair to judge based solely on the point differential, but the numbers are impossible to ignore.
"It's unfair, but let's be unfair for a second," Rivers said after Friday's game. "The first and third quarters, [the Raptors] scored 35 points on our starters. And you can make that case, especially in the third quarter because [Boston's starters] played the whole quarter. The other two quarters were 32 [points allowed] and 34, and that's our second unit. So that was the only thing I talked about after the game."
Expanding the first and third quarters versus the second and fourth quarters over the last eight games shows that the Celtics are plus-70 in the first and third periods (outscoring opponents 462-392) and a minus-6 in the second and fourth quarters (being outscored 437-431).
But we wanted to be more precise. So we reached out to the folks at Elias Sports Bureau and asked them to crunch the numbers based on whether the Celtics' starters or reserves were on the floor.
There's no exact science to this, but typically Boston's starters are on the court for the first nine minutes of the odd quarters and the final six minutes of the even quarters. Of course, there are variances. Shaquille O'Neal -- or whomever the starting center is on any given night -- generally checks out earlier than, say, Rajon Rondo, and Ray Allen has logged a lot of time with the second unit. But this seemed like a fair split for our purposes. Overtime points were ignored.
During the 30-minute window assigned to the starters, Boston outscored opponents 1,037-898 for an average point differential per game of about plus-8.7. During the 18-minute window examined for the bench, Boston was outscored 563-530 for an average point differential of minus-2.1.
The discrepancy isn't so bad when considering points allowed per minute. The starters give up 1.87 points per minute during their 30-minute block, while the reserves allow 1.95 points per minute during their 18-minute span. The problem is on offense, where the starters average 2.16 points per minute and the bench scores 1.84 per minute.
Going back to simpler metrics, Boston's reserves have been outscored by the opponents' reserves 517-421, or about 6 points per game.
The numbers are much worse when one factors in that Davis, despite his sixth-man role, has spent more minutes with the starting unit than any other center on the team. Davis accounts for 42.3 percent of Boston's total bench scoring (166 points). That is a staggering number, especially considering his recent struggles (shooting 31.3 percent over his last six games, connecting on 20-of-64 shots).
So what's the solution to improving Boston's bench play? The unit clearly has to pick up its offense, but the reserves can't hang their heads when shots are not falling, as Rivers suggested they did Friday.
"I thought our second unit was frustrated because offensively things weren't going well for them during both times out on the floor," Rivers said. "And they decided they weren't going to defend because they were concerned about their offense. That was frustrating."
Here are three things that could help Boston's bench offensively:
1) Get Robinson to think like a starter: During his three-game stint as a starter, Robinson took 28 field goal attempts and shot a blistering 60.7 percent, shining beyond the arc (8 of 13, 61.5 percent). In his first game back with the subs Friday, Robinson hoisted two shots over 12 minutes,13 seconds. With Delonte West out for the foreseeable future with a broken wrist, Robinson figures to be looking to distribute more as the chief ball handler on the second unit, but he showed with the starters that he can still get his shots while being the offensive quarterback.
Before Wednesday's game against the Nets, Rivers revealed the key for Robinson.
"Just play," he said. "Just go play through our system; be aggressive. I think he did that [the first two games as a starter] and teams, you could tell, they had a defensive game plan for Rondo, and they were going under [screens] on everything. Which, if you do that with Nate, you're going to pay for it."
2) Get Daniels the ball near the rim: Sure, it's easier said than done, but Daniels has connected on 18-of-21 shots at the rim and his 85.7 percent success rate is far and away the best on the team (minimum: four attempts). This goes back to Rivers' belief that Daniels is one of the best cutters in the game. When he slashes from the wing as defenses hurry to help on penetrators, it leads to a lot of easy layups.
On the flip side, Daniels has connected on 10-of-38 attempts (26.3 percent) from everywhere else on the floor and, after a strong preseason with the 3-point shot, has made one field goal in 16 attempts beyond 15 feet this season.
3) Get healthy: Shaq and Jermaine O'Neal have rotated at starting center and have not both been active at the same time since the second game of the season. So Boston hasn't had a true backup center since its loss to Cleveland on Oct. 27. And then there's incumbent starter Kendrick Perkins, who will be sidelined at least until midseason because of offseason knee surgery.
The Celtics played their first 10 games without West (suspension) and, after five games, lost him indefinitely when he broke his right wrist Wednesday night against the Nets. Add in Rondo's three-game absence because of a strained left hamstring, and it's clear the Celtics have been patching holes all season.
Having both O'Neals healthy would give the second unit an experienced low-post presence and take some of the pressure off rookie Erden, who's playing through the pain of a shoulder injury while learning the NBA ropes. What's more, the lack of big men leaves Boston's frontcourt worried about foul trouble, which doesn't help at either end of the floor.
Yes, injuries are part of the game, and Boston will have to gut things out without West, who appeared to be a key to the second unit during the preseason. The Celtics' bench entered the season with lofty expectations but thus far has been a disappointment. There are still 66 games to get where they want to be.
Chris Forsberg is the Celtics reporter for ESPNBoston.com. Follow him on Twitter.
The Celtics' subs have struggled mightily on offense. Can they turn it around?