Entering the season, Phil Pressey’s role with the Celtics was unclear. With the additions of Marcus Smart, Evan Turner and Marcus Thornton to go along with the starting backcourt of Rajon Rondo and Avery Bradley, Pressey looked to be the odd man out in a crowded Celtics backcourt. Coming into last night’s game, Pressey had only played 3 garbage time minutes in the Celtics blowout loss to the Rockets. Still, late in the third quarter Friday night, Brad Stevens had the confidence to go to the young guard and Pressey took advantage of his opportunity.
Pressey entered the game with 3:21 left in the third. At that point the Celtics were down 3. The starters had failed to duplicate their strong start to the game with a strong start coming out of halftime and Brad Stevens went to his bench for answers. The bench unit, which has notably struggled up to this point, was able to out-score the Pacers 29-21 in a span that lasted just over 12 minutes, providing the Celtics with a 5 point cushion and giving the starters ample rest to finish the game at full strength. Pressey directed the offense during this span which marked his only playing time of the game and longest stint of the season. He finished with an impressive line of 5 points, 4 assists and 2 steals while only turning the ball over once in 12 minutes.
Up to this point in the season, Evan Turner had led the second unit as Boston’s primary ball handler when Rajon Rondo needed a rest. Turner has struggled in the role in a small sample size, averaging 4.2 turnovers per 36 minutes early on in the season. It seemed like he was trying to do too much for a second unit that has multiple scoring options (Marcus Thornton, Brandon Bass, Marcus Smart, to go along with Turner). With that personnel coming off the bench, the Celtics need a backup point guard who can take care of the basketball, but who can also effectively distribute the basketball and set teammates up in positions where they can succeed.
Enter Phil Pressey.
Pressey flourished Friday night by making the simple play. Twice he was able to hit Brandon Bass off of pick and roll action for a mid-range jump shot, Bass’ strength. When the defense went under the screen, Pressey answered by knocking down a three. If the defense fought over the top, Pressey was able to get into the lane and in one instance hit a runner over Roy Hibbert, the Pacers’ rim protector and league leader in blocked shots. The second unit, led by Pressey at the point, was given more time on the court than usual due to their success, allowing the starters to be completely rested and fresh for the final 3 minutes of the game while also saving some of their legs for tonight’s game in Chicago. Pressey’s simple and effective play was a breath of fresh air for a Celtics bench that desperately needed it, as he was the X-factor for a unit that played a key role in the Celtics win.
The Bench Unit Moving Forward
Finding a second unit that works well together is like putting together the pieces to a difficult puzzle. Early on, Brad Stevens has and will continue to be willing to try different combinations until he finds one that will work consistently. On top of giving Pressey extended minutes for the first time this season, Stevens mixed up his second unit in another way as well. Tyler Zeller was the first man off the bench in both the first and third quarters, replacing Jared Sullinger. This allowed Zeller to run the majority of his minutes with the first unit and Rajon Rondo, who he has worked effectively with to start the season. More importantly, Stevens’ rotation allowed Sullinger to be the go-to-guy on the second unit, a role that he thrived in last night. 13 of Sullinger’s team-high 17 points came with Rondo, Green and Olynyk on the bench. Sullinger’s presence on the second unit helps the Celtics in a number of ways. First and foremost, it provides direction and purpose that the unit had otherwise lacked. Sullinger is clearly the Celtics best player on the court in these minutes, and the team will make it a priority to get him touches. On this note, it also allows Sullinger to be the featured guy. In a lineup with a point guard like Rajon Rondo, it is difficult to run the offense through anyone else. By leading the second unit, Sullinger will get the opportunity to have the offense run through him and help keep the Celtics’ offense above water with Rondo on the bench.
While the Pressey and Sullinger moves by Brad Stevens may seem subtle, they played a key role in the Celtics ability to get a tight win against the Pacers. In the 4th quarter, Pressey and Sullinger combined for 16 points, 3 rebounds, 6 assists and only 1 turnover, and on a night where the Celtics other 4 starters combined for a -18 (Rondo -5, Bradley -2, Olynyk -2, Green -9), Pressey and Sullinger combined for a +16 (both at +8), with most of Sullinger’s damage being done as a member of the second unit.
Brad Stevens second unit will take a hit as it looks like Marcus Smart will miss some time, but Brad will continue to mix and match until he finds a combination that performs well together on a consistent basis. For the next few games it will be interesting to see if Stevens brings Zeller first off the bench for Sullinger and allows Sully to play with the second unit, a role Sullinger showed he can succeed in. What role will Phil Pressey play going forward? If Smart misses significant time, expect Pressey to lead the Celtics second unit at least until Smart returns, as he will have a chance to prove his effectiveness over a larger sample size. Neither of these scenarios may play out tonight in Chicago, as the Celtics may need Sullinger’s presence on the first unit without Rajon Rondo (not travelling with team) and Stevens may also call on Pressey to get some minutes with the starters. Moving forward with Rondo, the Celtics may have found a second unit combination they like.