When Avery Bradley told members of the media last week that the Celtics' second unit had been beating the starting unit in practice, eyebrows were raised. But the more we watch this Celtics team play, the easier it is to understand.

First thing’s first: the starting lineup has been shuffled around a bit. Players who began the season on the bench are now getting time as starters, either due to injury or ineffectiveness.

But despite the starting lineup changes, the second unit still appears to be more effective than the starters out on the court.

In fact, they’re saving them out there.

Because Brad Stevens has had to go to his bench earlier and more often than most coaches would like, the Celtics went into Wednesday night leading the NBA in bench minutes at 22.1.

But it’s not simply just time that this bench is leading in. They’re averaging a whopping 51 points per game, good for first in the NBA, as well as 23.5 rebounds per game, also good for first. Ball hogs? Nope. The bench dishes out 11.2 assists, ranking them third. And just as they’re finding success on the offensive end, how do 4.7 steals (first in NBA) and 2.8 blocks (second in NBA) per game sound?

The bench production was never more apparent than in the 99-83 Celtics win over the Bucks on Tuesday night. A 29-9 run, largely from the second unit closed out the first half of the game. A 16-0 run in the third quarter – again with the second unit – gave the Celtics a bigger lead.

All in all, the C’s bench scored 60 points in Milwaukee – and that doesn’t include Isaiah Thomas’ 20 points.

 

Here are four important bench players going forward:

Kelly Olynyk – Olynyk could be the glue of this bench. He’s got the skill to hurt opponents both beyond the arc and in the paint. After a cold start to the season, he appears more comfortable in a big role off the bench.

Isaiah Thomas – Sure, Thomas has started the last week or so, but he’s expected to go back to the bench upon Smart’s return. And when he does, an already stacked bench gets its best offensive player back. Thomas will be in the running for Sixth Man of the Year this season because he’s going to lead the team in points.

Evan Turner – Turner may find himself in the starting lineup at times this season because he’s so versatile. Stevens is a huge fan, as Turner can play both guard spots as well as small forward. Turner is also one of the only playmakers on the team.

R.J. Hunter – A rookie? A rookie. If Stevens elects to play some small ball, Hunter has already proven to be ahead of where many thought he’d be on the defensive end. And that shot? Yeah – they can use that, too.