With their centers missing, Celtics’ bench speeds past Magic for ‘biggest game of the year’, Jaylen Brown affirmed something that warms everyone’s heart

With their centers missing, Celtics’ bench speeds past Magic for ‘biggest game of the year’

Dec 15, 2023; Boston, Massachusetts, USA; Boston Celtics guard Jaylen Brown (7) passes the ball through the defense of Orlando Magic center Goga Bitadze (35) during the first half at TD Garden. Mandatory Credit: Eric Canha-USA TODAY Sports

Dec 15, 2023; Boston, Massachusetts, USA; Boston Celtics guard Jaylen Brown (7) passes the ball through the defense of Orlando Magic center Goga Bitadze (35) during the first half at TD Garden. Mandatory Credit: Eric Canha-USA TODAY Sports

BOSTON — The Boston Celtics always knew the cliff was steep on their center depth. Kristaps Porziņģis has been great … when healthy … and Al Horford is reliable unless it’s a back-to-back.

So what happens when their first, second and even third-string center, Luke Kornet, are in street clothes? Well, you get a little bit of everything.

Lamar Stevens started at the five. Neemias Queta came in as the bench sparked a huge turnaround in the first quarter. Even Jayson Tatum played center.

In the end, no matter how small they were, the Celtics responded with force to one of the few teams that had consistently bullied them.

“A lot of guys put in a lot of work behind closed doors, so it’s great for them when they get their opportunity they come out and they ball,” Jaylen Brown said after the Celtics beat the Orlando Magic 128-111. “Payton (Pritchard), Sam (Hauser) elevated their roles a little bit more. Oshae (Brissett), Lamar (Stevens), their contributions just get thrown right in there and they play hard and play well. It was big. That was a good team win.”

On a night when Tatum had 30 points, did anyone even notice? Did anyone even care? This was about the 21 points from Pritchard, continued knockdown shooting with some great ball movement from Hauser, Brissett coming in for the first time in three weeks and getting buckets, and even Stevens eventually finding a rhythm as the starting center.

Lamar Stevens takes a 3-point shot in the second half Friday. (Maddie Meyer / Getty Images)
Without all their bigs, they could have wilted. But this was all an amalgamation of the supporting cast maximizing their roles, elevating the team in the moments where they often flop, and creating the vibe they need against a team like Orlando.

When Brissett was asked about people saying the Celtics would be in trouble having to dig so deep into their bench, to, well, play him, he scoffed at the idea.

“I’ve never heard that, and anyone that’s saying that is out of their mind,” Brissett said. “Because I strongly believe our second unit is better than a lot of teams’ first unit, and I can say that confidently.

Well, the Detroit Pistons do exist. So maybe?

Depth was a concern for this team entering the year, especially in the center slot of the depth chart.

“For you guys, not for me,” Celtics coach Joe Mazzulla said. “I wasn’t worried.“

Well, this is what the Celtics got from the (first) second unit: Pritchard was nearly perfect shooting out of the corners, going 6-for-7 from deep. Hauser was great making quick reads to swing the ball along the perimeter and dimed Pritchard up repeatedly while playing great defense throughout the night. Those guys are the key bench players, the ones who will be on the floor in the playoffs no matter what. This was their chance to show that they can do more than just feed off the team’s stars.

“I think that’s going to be more important to the long term than playing through me right now or playing through JT,” Brown said. “We gotta instill confidence in these guys, and I’m loving what I’m seeing right now. I like D-White’s confidence, he’s playing unreal. Payton and Sam are confident, they’re playing well. We got guys coming in, they haven’t played in a month and contributing. It’s just good energy right now.”

What they brought was speed. From defensive rotations to getting out on the fast break to making split decisions on where to send the ball as the offense flowed, everything clicked once the second unit came in halfway through the first quarter. The starters, with Stevens out there, were trying to play a semblance of their mismatch-hunting game to find a weak link. But they were bogged down.

The second unit played free since it doesn’t have the ability to slow things down. It has no choice but to play with speed.

“We had all guards, all smalls out there, so our advantage was speed, and that’s how I want to play all the time,” said Brown. “Like, let’s run on a made basket, on a missed basket. That’s what I’ve been trying to emphasize for our coaching staff and everybody all year.”

Brown called them “red zone attacks” as the Celtics were pressuring on defense to turn Orlando over for a season-high 14 steals and then flying in transition.

“Jaylen has done a good job of just leading that approach to our offensive pace, and when you can get out and score early baskets in transition, it gets us crossmatched, and then I think it really sparks our defense,” Mazzulla said. “I think the advantage tonight for us was speed, and I think we use it on both ends of the floor. But that’s just what we kept saying, is, ‘We have the speed advantage, we have the speed advantage, we have to find a way to keep it.’”

Orlando punched first, and it took the Celtics a while to get their head in the game. It’s a familiar refrain against the Magic, whose physicality and intensity in this matchup have allowed them to get the better of a team with far more refined talent.

But the Celtics knew they couldn’t control the half court against a bruising team when all their centers were gone. So that’s why you saw Brown leading the stampede over and over to run them out of the building. It was the idealized version of how this Celtics team wants to play.

Brown praised Orlando for showing their respect for the Celtics by ratcheting up their intensity every time they get to take a swing at the big dogs. But the Celtics are on top now, and Brown was dropping more hammers than a 5-year-old running around a Home Depot.

Now the Celtics are 13-0 at home. It’s the second time this has ever happened for this franchise. Brown is running the fast break now, but it was Bob Cousy and Bill Russell doing it in 1957-’58 the last time this team started 13-0. If you’re wondering if they can catch the record, don’t forget the 1986 team went 40-1 at home that year.

It’s doubtful this team, or any, will ever dominate at home to that level. But this team is just trying to be consistent any time, any place, with anybody out there.

“As the leader on the team, I’ve been making sure that, personally myself, I ain’t skipping those steps, but I’m not allowing nobody else to skip any steps either,” Brown said. “And I think that’s why we’ve been able to have such a good run at home.”

Brown has been taking the onus of his leadership role on this team lately. He’s repeatedly talked about how his goal this year is to make first-team all-defense, an individual accomplishment born of team play at its finest.

Brown didn’t even outscore Pritchard tonight. But it didn’t matter. Every healthy Celtic saw the floor in this game. This wasn’t next-man-up mentality. It was all-men-up mentality.

The Celtics are this incredible collection of top-end talent with a starting lineup to dream of. But the starters aren’t always there. The system doesn’t always work. Everyone else has to step up at one point or another.

That’s why this one was special.

“I think this is the biggest game of the year so far, in my opinion,” Brown said. “I think, one, we had a bunch of guys out and on a back-to-back versus a team that’s been kicking our ass the last four or five times we played. I think this was the biggest game to me so far.”

(Top photo of Jaylen Brown passing the ball through the defense of Orlando’s Goga Bitadze: Eric Canha / USA Today)

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