Boston Celtics Coach Doc Rivers should be commended for not giving into the pro hoops politics of playing starters over reserves during his team’s 96-89 win over the Los Angeles Lakers in Game Four of the NBA Finals on Thursday night.
With reserves Glen “Big Baby” Davis and Nate Robinson providing electricity off the bench, Rivers had a chance to pull the plug on their show midway through the final period by putting his starters back in, but declined—as he should have.
With Lakers center Andrew Bynum on the bench with a knee injury, Rivers didn’t face the size disadvantage that his team has struggled with throughout the first three games of the series. Bynum’s absence allowed Boston’s shorter reserves like Davis—who’s outplayed starting forward Kevin Garnett at times throughout this year’s playoffs—to see extended minutes.
Going forward, Bynum’s knee injury could result in more minutes for Davis. He’s the only Boston big man who appears content with attacking Los Angeles down low, and who would rather bang his way to the hoop than settle for a jump shot.
But while a vote for extended action for Davis is obvious, Robinson also deserves to be in the running for an increased workload. His perimeter shooting opens up the court for Boston’s half-court offense and allows one-on-one specialists Davis, Garnett, Paul Pierce and Ray Allen more room to operate in isolation. It’s clear that Robinson is nowhere near the play-making point guard that Boston star Rajon Rondo is, but the long distance shooting and scoring that Robinson provides over Rondo is unmistakable.
Rivers had played Rondo 40, 42 and 42 minutes through the series’ first three games and received modest but unconvincing numbers from his star point guard. But aside from a 13-minute, scoreless performance in the Game 1—in which the whole Boston team played poorly—Robinson has given the Celtics 24 points in just 29 minutes of playing time in the last three contests.
It’s unclear why Rivers hasn’t played a Rondo-Robinson backcourt at certain times, especially when Lakers coach Phil Jackson is playing a combination of Shannon Brown, Sasha Vujacic and Jordan Farmar at guard. While Rondo and Robinson are both small in stature, they play bigger than their size, collecting rebounds and blocking shots; Robinson’s block on Dwight Howard in Game 5 of the Eastern Conference finals was athleticism at its finest.
Rivers’ reluctance to play the 6-foot-8-inch Davis against the taller Bynum and Pau Gasol through the first three games may have been understandable, but his reluctance to play Robinson is something he’ll need to rethink in the upcoming games. The series has changed drastically with Bynum’s availability for the remainder of the final three games now in serious doubt, and that should allow Rivers to be more creative with his bench. Robinson, Davis, and fellow bench players Tony Allen and Rasheed Wallace played well during Game 4 and have played solid basketball throughout the series.
If the inconsistent play of Garnett, Ray Allen, Rondo and Pierce continues, Rivers should continue to avoid NBA politics and rely on his reserves if he wants to keep his 2010 championship hopes alive.