BOSTON - As Spring Training winds down for Major League Baseball teams currently stationed in Florida and Arizona, there are handfuls of managers who are still grinding out tough decisions that will impact their fast-approaching seasons.
Who will be the fifth starter? Who will be the fourth outfielder? Who will be that coveted right-handed power bat off of the bench?
Likewise, as the NBA regular season winds down and the playoffs approach, 16 head coaches around the league will be hammering down their playoff rotations. The other 14 head coaches can look forward to replacing the aforementioned baseball squads down south.
Of those 16 coaches who will be roaming the sidelines come the weekend of April 16, Doc Rivers might have the toughest job of all. Not because his players won't be ready for the playoffs -- they will -- or because they have limited playoff experience -- they don't.
Tony Allen scored 13 points off the bench during Boston's 113-99 win over the Denver Nuggets Wednesday night.
Brian Babineau/NBAE/Getty Images
No, Doc's job will be tougher than any other playoff-bound coach because his team is different; it's different in a way that most coaches could only dream of, and this coach wouldn't have it any other way.
You see, most NBA playoff teams have a firm grasp on who their top seven or eight players are. Those are the players that will garner all of the playing time in the postseason. For Rivers, that couldn't be any farther from the case.
With the recent acquisitions of veteran swingman Michael Finley and sparkplug Nate Robinson, Rivers now has a plethora of options both on the perimeter and in the paint when it comes to bench players. In fact, there's such an abundance of talent that Rivers will often send 10 players onto the court in a game and get positive results from each and every one of them.
Take Wednesday night, for instance. The Celtics welcomed the then-second seeded team in the Western Conference, the Denver Nuggets, to town for a showdown on ESPN. Rivers spoke before the game about how Finley had supplanted Tony Allen in the rotation and that there just wasn't enough minutes to go around for everyone.
Since Finley's first appearance as a Celtic, Allen had played at least 10 minutes in only one game, and in that game he logged exactly 10 minutes. But when Rivers needed a boost against the Nuggets, guess where he looked. That's right, directly at Allen.
"Tonight was a night that we needed him," Paul Pierce said of Allen being fully prepared to play. "That's the type of team we have -- professionalism."
No. 42 logged 20 minutes of playing time Wednesday night and finished with 13 points and two rebounds while missing only one shot attempt. That's what we like to call production, or, according to some, unexpected production.
The thing is, when you look at the broader scope of this team, you see that this type of occurrence happens more often than not. Here's a rundown of what's happened in only the past two weeks, a miniscule snapshot of what the bench has done this season.
- Robinson had a 5-of-6 showing from downtown that sparked a 19-point win for Boston over Indiana on March 12.
- In another blowout win, this time over the Pistons on March 15, Finley tied for the team-high in points with 15.
- Four days later, Rasheed Wallace led the team in rebounds with nine against the Rockets in Houston.
- When Rivers gave Shelden Williams some playing time on March 17 against the Knicks, he dropped eight points and three rebounds in only eight minutes.
- Then, as recently as Monday night, Glen Davis, who has proven to be the team's most consistent source of energy, was Boston's best player when he scored 13 points with five rebounds off the bench.
That list doesn't even include a top-flight performance from Marquis Daniels, whom Rivers often gushes about.
Simply put, this team has options, lots of them. The bench is turning into a camouflage suit for this team, allowing them to adjust and fit in to any given situation.
"Guys are hungry... Scal's hungry, Shelden's hungry," Rivers said after Wednesday's win. "Guys want to play. And so for the guys in front of them, they know that. They know if they don't go at the speed and play the way (we need them to), there's always somebody waiting. That's a good thing for our team."
Good thing? More like a great thing -- a great thing that has helped the Celtics turn the corner in the stretch run of the season.
Boston's bench seems to be creating its own identity on this team, one that bleeds the notion that literally any of the seven nightly reserves can contribute at any time when his name is called. Allen is just the latest to add proof to that pudding.
"Basically, I've just been listening to the coaches, 'Stay ready, stay ready, stay ready...' " Allen said after his performance against the Nuggets. "Today was a day my number got called and I took advantage of it."
That's exactly what his comrades have done nearly every night over the past month. And for this team to reach its ultimate goal of raising Banner 18 in the TD Garden in October of 2010, that kind of production is going to need to continue.
"This is that time of the year, this is the stretch run," said Captain Paul Pierce after Wednesday's win, speaking of the Celtics as a whole and not just as a starting unit. "Going into those last couple of laps, this is where you really want to be playing well going into the playoffs."
The Big Three, which could easily be regarded as the Big Four (see Rajon Rondo), are fully healthy and are playing their best ball in nearly four months. The bench is right by their side, drooling like an attack dog ready to demolish the opponent at a moment's notice.
Allen described that mindset with the following: "Well I just look at it like they got a quiet assassin, and whenever you all want to unleash him he's going to be ready."
Luckily for Rivers, it looks like he's got seven of those assassins available on his bench each and every night, and it's going to be a heck of a challenge to refrain from cutting them all loose come playoff time.