It's hard to imagine that the Boston bench could play much better than it did during the Celtics' recently completed road trip. But as Boston readies for the debut of Nate Robinson, that's exactly what the team hopes happens.
Robinson, acquired in a five-player trade that sent Eddie House, J.R. Giddens, and Bill Walker to the New York Knicks at the NBA trade deadline, is expected to be in the lineup when Boston hosts his former team Tuesday night at the TD Garden.
Boston's bench might have been shorthanded for much of a recent four-game western swing (an illness prevented Robinson from immediately joining the team), but it was hard to tell. While starters struggled for consistency, the bench often held the team afloat.
As the Celtics approach full health (or what passes for full health this time of year), it's not exactly surprising to see the reserves generating the type of production many expected of them before the start of the 2009-10 season. But it's certainly intriguing to think what this group is capable of with the addition of one of the top bench scorers in the NBA.
After all, who knows better about taking things to another level than a (generously listed) 5-foot-9 guard who's also the three-time defending slam dunk champion?
To be sure, there's room for improvement in Boston's second unit. Rasheed Wallace remains frustratingly inconsistent and Glen Davis is only recently starting to flourish after a hand injury sidelined him at the start of the season. All of Boston's injuries have rarely allotted the unit time to jell, as the reserves have been called upon for 20 starts through 54 games.
So while we've seen glimpses of potential, you can't help but wonder what the ceiling is.
Marquis Daniels has already made a monster difference for a unit that was downright woeful at times during his 28-game absence following surgery to repair torn ligaments in his left thumb.
Daniels showcased his abilities Sunday, connecting on 7 of 8 shots for 15 points, while adding 6 rebounds, 3 assists, and a block over 18 minutes in a loss to Denver. Since returning to the lineup he's shooting a ridiculous 64.7 percent over six games, averaging 8.5 points, 3.2 rebounds, 1.5 assists, and 0.8 steals per game.
What's more, the Celtics' bench has outscored opponents 222-148 over those last six games. But if some dubbed Daniels "the final piece" when he returned to the lineup, where does Robinson fit into the puzzle?
"He gives us speed, he gives us another ball handler, and he gives us a guy that can have a night," Celtics coach Doc Rivers said Thursday in Los Angeles before noting that he doesn't plan to limit Robinson offensively. And that's exactly what the Celtics need from Robinson: instant offense.
Robinson can handle the ball (something the Celtics need without a true backup point) and he can defend (opposing guards will hate a feisty lineup of Rondo and Robinson). But it may ultimately be scoring that the Celtics needed most.
As good as the Boston bench has been recently, the game-by-game point totals are not staggering. The 44 bench points scored against the Kings last week was the largest output since the team scored that same number against Chicago on Dec. 12. Only twice has Boston's bench gone above that number (62 points versus Philadelphia on Nov. 3, and 49 points versus New Orleans on Oct. 30).
With a group featuring Wallace, Daniels, Davis, Tony Allen and now Robinson, you simply expect more.
Maybe the Celtics learned from their own struggles. After watching Atlanta's Jamal Crawford torch the team as the Hawks produced a four-game season sweep, Celtics president of basketball operations Danny Ainge likely identified that a Crawford-like presence was exactly what this team needed, particularly as House struggled with his own shot this season.
Since the Celtics couldn't get Crawford, they got a guy of similar abilities and roots (both players attended Rainier Beach in Seattle).
Two seasons ago, Robinson's 16.5 points per game were the second best of any player coming off the bench in the NBA. This season he ranks seventh at 12.8 points per game, putting him in company with San Antonio's Manu Ginobili, Denver's J.R. Smith (who scored 19 points versus Boston Sunday), and even Crawford.
Consider this: The leading bench scorer in the league (Al Harrington) averages nearly the same amount of points per game (17.7) as the leading scorer on Boston's roster (Paul Pierce, 17.9 points per game). For a team predicated on defense, the addition of a second-unit scorer might be exactly what this team needs.
While health may ultimately be the chief reason for Boston's success this postseason, part of the reason the Celtics were pegged as championship contenders in the preseason was the potential of their bench.
On Tuesday night, we should get a glimpse of whether Robinson can take this team -- and the second unit -- to another level.
Chris Forsberg is the Celtics reporter for ESPNBoston.com. Follow him on Twitter.