Bench could be the difference for Celtics

Reserves for the Boston Celtics have combined for 39 points in each of the team's past three games. It might not sound like an overwhelming amount, particularly not for a group that combined for a season-high 60 points in a win over the Raptors back in early January, but consider the following:

  • Only six times over the Celtics' first 65 games did Boston score 40 bench points or more.

  • Those 39 points are a dozen more than the team's season average of 27 bench points per game (22nd in the league).

  • The last time Boston scored more than 39 bench points in a game was 24 games ago, on Jan. 25 against Cleveland, when the reserves combined for 47 points (Kendrick Perkins' first game back from ACL surgery and a game Boston led by 21 at halftime).

  • The 76ers, whose bench was instrumental in Philadelphia's win over Boston last week, lead the NBA with an average of 40.1 bench points per game.

To be sure, the Celtics are constructed to thrive when their Big Four of Kevin Garnett, Paul Pierce, Ray Allen and Rajon Rondo shoulder the scoring load. But the stats this season suggest Boston puts itself in better position to win when its bench at least pitches in.

In fact, in Boston's 19 losses this season, the Celtics' bench has averaged a mere 22.6 points per game (which ranks 29th in the league in average output in losses) while shooting 40.3 percent from the field. On the flip side, in Boston's 48 wins, the bench has averaged 28.7 points per game on 46.4 percent shooting.

Over the past three games, Boston's bench is averaging those 39 points per game on a staggering 56.8 percent shooting. The reserves are not only contributing, they're doing it efficiently. What's more, in the Celtics' two wins during that span, it was the bench that helped fuel the comeback efforts, preventing Boston's recent stumbles from being a complete face-plant.

Celtics coach Doc Rivers saw the need for this sort of bench effort at the start of the year, often noting that in order for Boston to put itself in position to be successful in the postseason -- cough, cough, earn the top seed -- it would need to lean on its entire roster.

He was right. And Boston is finding out just how important that bench is as it begins riding a seesaw atop the East with the Chicago Bulls (the two teams currently stand with matching records through Sunday's action, with the Miami Heat trying to hop on the ride, as well).

What Rivers couldn't have envisioned was that his bench would look as it does now. Rewind to the preseason, when every bit of optimism needs to be taken with a grain of salt. The Celtics were throwing around terms such as "best bench" since Rivers arrived. Fortunately, Rivers himself noted that "on paper and in games, that's two different things."

The injury bug played an instrumental role in preventing Boston's bench from ever fully reaching the potential that Rivers and his players openly gushed about in early October. Back then, Boston envisioned being able to trot out the likes of Nate Robinson, Delonte West, Marquis Daniels, Jermaine O'Neal and Shaquille O'Neal with the second unit.

Robinson never developed into the sort of consistent scorer Boston yearned for when it acquired him at the 2010 trade deadline; West missed 57 of the team's first 65 games due to suspension and injury; Daniels suffered a season-ending spine injury in early February; Jermaine O'Neal hasn't been seen since early January due to an ailing left knee that's limited him to 17 games; and Shaquille O'Neal has been sidelined since Feb. 1 with right foot injuries.

In a way, those injuries forced Boston's hand at the deadline. They caused Celtics president of basketball operations Danny Ainge to overhaul his bench, in part at the expense of a key starter in Kendrick Perkins, to give the team enough depth to accomplish its ultimate goal of a world title.

It's no coincidence that Boston's bench has begun to thrive at the very moment that, not only are West and Glen Davis healthy, key deadline acquisition Jeff Green is finding his role as bench spark plug. Boston players still get weak-kneed thinking about how this bench might further develop when the O'Neals (and Von Wafer, too) get healthy (which is likely to push offensive-minded center Nenad Krstic to the second unit).

But maybe most encouraging is that Boston's bench is starting to put it together regardless of how the reserves are utilized. In what amounted to a must-win situation after dropping the front end of a back-to-back in Houston on Friday, the Celtics leaned on a playoff-like three-man unit of West, Davis and Green on Saturday in New Orleans. Against the Pacers on Wednesday, Boston used its entire seven-man bench unit, mixing in healthy doses of Carlos Arroyo and Troy Murphy (along with cameos from Avery Bradley and Sasha Pavlovic).

In this post-Perk world, the Celtics fashion themselves as a deeper, more versatile team. The Celtics believe they are better suited to tackle the rigors of both the regular season and playoffs with a deeper roster -- a lack of depth working against Boston when Perkins went down in last year's Finals.

Success in the postseason will, at least in some small way, be linked to where the Celtics finish in the East standings. Without a bench to lean on, Boston could easily slide to No. 3, making its playoff path incredibly daunting.

But if the Celtics' reserves continue to provide the sort of consistency exemplified by producing the same exact lofty scoring output in the past three games, Boston has a chance to hold onto the top spot it's occupied for much of the season.

And that might ultimately be the difference in securing Banner 18 this time around.

Chris Forsberg covers the Celtics for ESPNBoston.com.