Have Celtics found a secret weapon in Jayson Tatum-and-the-bench lineup?

The Boston Celtics’ starting five has been a wrecking ball this season, posting an outrageous and league-leading net rating of plus-23.7 over 417 minutes together in 32 appearances. That’s 7.4 points better than the next-best five-man unit in the league with at least 250 minutes of floor time (Minnesota, 16.3).

The trouble for the Celtics is that inconsistent sub lineups have often left Boston vulnerable. Which is why it was notable during Friday’s shellacking of the Sacramento Kings that Boston found success with a relatively new five-man pairing that could be key to weathering reserve minutes moving forward.

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Ime Udoka leaned heavy on a lineup featuring Jayson Tatum and the four players who have consistently cracked the first-year coach’s nine-man rotation. That combination of Tatum, Derrick White, Daniel Theis, Grant Williams, and Payton Pritchard logged 12 minutes, 45 seconds of court time – nearly the same amount as the starting group – and outscored the Kings 40-19 during that span.

Even more encouraging, the “Tatum and the Bench” combo knocked down 9 of 12 3-point attempts, highlighted by Pritchard’s latest fourth-quarter outburst, to carry the Celtics to the finish line of their 18th win in 21 games.

For all their defensive talent, Boston’s starting group sometimes lacks the shooting that might fully accentuate Tatum’s evolving playmaking talents and capitalize on the attention he draws. But even as Williams and White struggle with their shots, surrounding Tatum with willing ball-movers and 3-point threats has paid immediate dividends.

It’s also hammered home just good Tatum is playing and why he might be wiggling into the MVP conversation. It’s jarring that the Celtics go from a robust plus-10.8 during Tatum’s floor time to minus-3.5 without him. No other player on the roster has a negative off-court net rating.

This “Tatum and the Bench” unit has now played 21 minutes together. It’s a extremely small sample size but a plus-70.1 net rating and an offensive rating of 154.3 in that span is impossible to ignore. A longer sample will help determine just how sustainable that group is.

Drill down and the three-man combination of Tatum-White-Williams has played a heartier 97 minutes together since White’s arrival at the NBA trade deadline with a modest plus-3.0 net rating. Most notable, that three-man pairing has an offensive rating of 117.5 – a mark that would lead the NBA by 1.3 points if maintained.

Essentially, if Boston’s reserve lineups do nothing more than tread water for most of their floor time, then the starters have been dominant enough to carry the team to victory. Getting high-level offense from reserve groups is a bonus.

And this new-look bench pairing might have only scratched the surface of its potential. After being one of the league’s top corner threats for most of the season, Williams is shooting just 30.3 percent beyond the arc over his last 11 games. White has connected on a meager 22.4 percent of his 3-point shots since arriving in Boston and has made just three of his last 22 3-point attempts over his last five games.

Fortunately for Boston, Pritchard has made a second-half surge.

Since the All-Star break, Pritchard is Boston’s second-leading fourth-quarter scorer behind only Tatum.

Chris Forsberg

Even after the team dealt away Dennis Schroder at the trade deadline, Pritchard didn’t quite kick down the door to increased playing time. But he’s settled in lately, both making shots more frequently and creating for others again. Since the All-Star break, Pritchard is Boston’s second-leading fourth-quarter scorer behind only Tatum.

Pritchard is feasting on quality looks whenever Tatum or White drive the ball.

“It’s big having a guy that can space the floor and knock down those shots,” said Tatum. “And he just makes us more dynamic, and it builds confidence. There’s nothing better than seeing the ball go through the net, especially as a shooter. So happy for him and keep it going.”

During Friday’s win in Sacramento, Pritchard didn’t just make all five shots he took (including a quartet of 3s), but he added eight assists and five rebounds in 21 minutes. He was plus-31 in that span.

“He’s obviously one of our best shooters,” Udoka said. “The trick for him was to learn to play off the ball more and understand that we have Marcus [Smart]Derrick, Jayson, Jaylen [Brown] that can all handle and create shots for him. At times, he’s a great screener and popper and he mixes it up and we bring some smaller matchups into it.

“So he’s done a great job of not just handling it but playing off the ball. And then, obviously, like I said, him being one of our best shooters, guys are really looking for him. You can feel it, you can see it, they’re looking for him in transition. So just adds another layer to our team. But the confidence part was always there for him. It’s just a matter of the opportunity. “

Udoka has treaded cautiously with bench minutes, often tightening his rotation to as few as seven players this season. But being able to confidently trot out the Tatum and the Bench lineup is a luxury.

Solid bench play can help drive down minute totals for a team that taxed its starters at the start of this furious second-half surge. Tatum played a team-high 34 minutes on Friday but no other starter was much north of 28 minutes (and that was just Brown, who made a fourth-quarter cameo to finish off a 30-point night).

Tatum has routinely carried bench lineups in seasons past. But now Boston has the sort of talent that can really let him shine in those moments. And that group could make Boston even more dangerous heading to the finish line of the regular season.

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