The Boston Celtics had a crowded roster last year, but Marcus Smart and Brad Wanamaker have turned backcourt depth into a positive this time around.
Last year, the Boston Celtics simply had too many mouths to feed. What was supposed to be the alpha team in the Eastern Conference — coming off a stunning 2018 conference finals run sans Kyrie Irving and Gordon Hayward — somehow floundered with two of its best three players back on the court in 2018-19.
Hayward struggled to replicate his prime form from his days with the Utah Jazz in his first season back from a debilitating injury, but the problems had deeper roots: There was only one ball to go around and far too many talented players in need of looks, especially in the backcourt between Irving, Marcus Smart and Terry Rozier.
Kemba Walker has stepped in as the de facto scoring guard to replace Irving, leading the Celtics in scoring and assists with 23.4 points and 5.0 assists per game. But despite another discouraging injury to Hayward, who was just starting to look like the Hayward of old, Boston has kept on chugging without him.
On Monday night, the Celts beat a surprisingly good Phoenix Suns team on the road, on the second-night of a back-to-back, coming off a downer loss to the Sacramento Kings that snapped their 10-game win streak. Their approach to such a “schedule loss” didn’t change though.
“It means the same thing every night: Control the controllables,” head coach Brad Stevens said.
So how are they doing it? The Celtics have backcourt depth, and this time, it’s a good thing.
“Their record speaks for itself,” Suns head coach Monty Williams said. “To lose Gordon, to have a shift in the point guard position and still be successful and efficient, shooting 35 3s … and they’ve changed so much. Horford to [Enes] Kanter to losing Aron, yet they keep winning games.”
On Wednesday, the Celtics used a 20-4 run in the second quarter to blow the game open and never looked back — an impressive feat considering Boston’s circumstances, but doubly so since Phoenix’s calling card this season has been hanging around in games against tough teams.
“They can beat you off the dribble, you just saw it,” Williams said. “They read defenses well, they execute out of timeouts. They’re a really good team.”
Jayson Tatum led the way with 26 points and 11 boards, and though Walker struggled with 19 points on 19 shots, Boston’s backcourt depth really shone through. Smart, who’s shooting an impressive 37.2 percent from deep on a whopping 7.2 attempts per game this season, was a thorn in the Suns’ side for most of the night, finishing with 17 points and four assists in 30 minutes before exiting with a right ankle sprain.
The sight of Smart limping off was enough to set Celtics Twitter into a panic, especially after Hayward’s unfortunate setback, but Smart said after the game the swelling wasn’t too bad, that he was still able to shift it, plant it and move it from side to side. Perhaps just as importantly, though, Brad Wanamaker revealed his worth in making sure Smart’s injury didn’t open the door to a last-minute Phoenix comeback.
“One of the more important things on our team is you know what you’re getting every day,” Stevens said. “He’s been really good. You can play with him with the ball, he can play off of it, he can guard bigger guys ‘cause he’s strong, and he’s very smart. So he makes the other players around him better when he’s in the game. You can kinda see he’s doing some of the things we would normally ask Gordon to do when he’s in with that group, and he’s doing a great job. He’s real steady right now.”
Wanamaker’s numbers in the box score didn’t leap off the page Monday night; he finished with 10 points, six assists and three steals. But his contributions came at a key time to help put the Suns away, and in the five games since Hayward was injured, his numbers have jumped to 9.4 points and 3.8 assists in 21.1 minutes per game on 51.9 percent shooting.
“We just have guys who can step up,” Walker said, noting that he’s known Wanamaker for a long day after playing against him in college. “Smart is playing extremely well and leading us extremely well, and Brad, he’s just solid, man. His work ethic is second to none. It’s no surprise when he comes in and just does what he does.”
Thirteen games is a small sample size, but Wanamaker is posting sturdy .520/.364/.920 shooting splits on the season. And though he’s only been in the league for two years, the 30-year-old is regarded as a leader in the locker room.
“He’s a leader, man, natural-born leader,” Walker said. “He’s just such a great guy. Very high character. He gets along with everybody and he’s just one of those guys that you need around.”
Everyone seems to be on the same page that there are nights where Walker, Smart and a healthy Hayward will eat plenty of minutes that Wanamaker could be earning — much like last year.
“There was just no chance for it to go the way he wanted it to last year,” Stevens said. “Anytime you had a guy out, it was more time for everybody else that was in our top seven or eight. And as much as you know that coming in or are aware of that coming in, that’s just hard to stomach in the middle of it as you’re going through the 82 games. He knew we were gonna have massive roster change, so he knew that at the end of the day, there was gonna be opportunity like this.”
He and Stevens had a conversation about that over the summer, but nothing changed from Wanamaker’s perspective in regards to his situation.
“It wasn’t too much of ‘This is gonna be your role,’” Wanamaker said of their chat. “I was sick of talk. And as I told you guys at the beginning of the summer, everything is gonna be earned. So I’m just gonna go out there and produce every chance I get. You see, we deep…you never know when your number’s gonna be called.”
That preparedness has served Wanamaker well. Stevens praised Boston’s oldest player for never missing any voluntary days, coming in to lead by example and work with the rookies.
“That’s how it’s been my whole life,” Wanamaker said. “Nothing has ever been handed to me. So I kinda like that approach. It keeps you hungry and it keeps you wanting more.”
Between Kemba’s scoring and facilitating, Smart’s improved 3-ball, playmaking and defensive chops, and Wanamaker’s ability to fill in the gaps, the Celtics’ backcourt depth looks like it’s finally turned into an advantage.
“They’ve got a lot more experience again,” offered Baynes, the recent ex-Celtic. “It’s kind of those young guys — everyone calls them young, they’re not young anymore.”