NEW YORK -- It is a grand understatement to proclaim the Boston Celtics will go as far as their "big four" will take them, and it's obvious how critical it is for the four to stay fresh for the postseason haul.
That's why the returns from an easy Game 3 win over the New York Knicks on Friday night were so encouraging. Coach Doc Rivers was delighted that Kevin Garnett (32 minutes), Paul Pierce (33 minutes), Ray Allen (37 minutes) and twenty-something Rajon Rondo (40 minutes) were within their target range.
"I can live with those minutes, all day long,'' Rivers said.
But what the coach won't tolerate is a second unit that hangs its head when shots aren't falling and lapses defensively as a result. The starters built a 23-point lead after three quarters Friday night, then watched with dismay as the reserves coughed up five of those points in a heartbeat.
"That was all about effort,'' said Rivers. "I tell them all the time, 'I don't care if you miss 20 shots in a row, it cannot affect your defense.'''
Pierce was also peeved at the second unit's temperament and delivered his own tongue lashing.
"I've been a little disappointed in the second unit,'' Pierce conceded yesterday. "The starters come out and take a lead and it evaporates really quickly when we start subbing the second unit in.
"I was a little upset it was deja vu. Even though we were up 20, you don't want to see that continually happen. I want them to know it's sometimes about the team. I didn't feel like they were competing at the high level we needed to be at during the playoffs.
"It wasn't about a defensive scheme or an offensive scheme. It was about playing harder, that's what I was most upset about.''
Asked what he thought was ailing the second unit, Pierce offered, "They're thinking too much. Instead of just going out and playing with reckless abandon, playing hard, playing scrappy, they're trying not to mess up.
"If they can just play hard, play defense, rebound the ball and be a unit that gives us energy, they'll be fine. But when they get to thinking about where to be offensively, they hesitate and they get passive, and that's not a recipe for success.''
New York's bench outscored Boston's reserves 52-13 in Game 3. While points are not the only barometer of a successful bench, the Celtics' anemic output has been a cause for concern.
Rivers wants to trust West, needs to trust Davis and is still learning to trust Green. In the meantime, there are nights when the Celtics are a flashback to the '80s, when K.C. Jones played his five starters 30-plus minutes a night and only two other guys (Bill Walton and Scott Wedman) with any regularity.
West and Davis have proved their mettle in Celtics green before, but for Green, the attempts to fit in with Boston's veterans have clearly been daunting.
Green is coping with a number of issues, including new, complicated defensive schemes, a new identity as a bench player rather than a starter who logged 30-plus minutes a night in Oklahoma City, and a new role as the linchpin of the second unit who is expected to be the primary scorer when his group is on the floor.
"That's something he probably hasn't been asked to do since college,'' Rivers said. "But he's coming on. You can see it.''
Green accounted for nine of those 13 bench points Friday night, grabbed four rebounds and contributed to the Contain Carmelo campaign, but don't expect to see him pounding his chest or banging his head on the goal post. He is the J.D. Drew of the Boston Celtics -- a talented athlete devoid of emotion who, just when you are about to throw up your hands in disgust at his passiveness, comes through with a significant play to help the team.
"I think people read into that emotion thing way into much,'' Rivers said. "Jeff can hit the game-winner in Game 7 of the NBA championship and walk off the floor [without saying anything]. But inside he's probably having a party. I don't care how he reacts as long as he gives us what we need out there.''
If Boston, in fact, closes out New York in four games and advances to play Miami, Green's role will be further magnified. One of his advertised assets was an ability to spell both Allen and Pierce on the defensive end and take on proven scorers like LeBron James.
"I'm ready,'' Green said, "to do whatever they want me to do.''
The theory was West would help spell Rondo and Allen and generate the hustle plays that have made him a Rivers favorite, but he has failed to emerge as that catalyst against the Knicks. Friday, he submitted two shots (both misses), zero rebounds and one assist in 13 minutes. It remains to be seen whether myriad injuries have stripped him of the ability to be an active agitator going forward.
"The bench has been pedestrian in this series,'' West said. "I know I can do more with this team, but with the guys we have, sometimes more just isn't needed.
"I'm still trying to figure out my role. I need to space the floor. I gotta get the ball to Baby and Jeff so they can score. My role is a utility role, really. Boston gave me a chance to be part of this, and we are winning, so I'm not disappointed at all. It is what it is.''
Davis played a pivotal role in the 2008 championship and has been a mainstay off the bench all season. Yet he, too, has struggled for weeks now.
"It's so hard, especially as an emotional player,'' Davis said. "I've got to keep my mind in the right spot.''
Baby is sensitive to criticism that he is too concerned with scoring, but acknowledged,"I don't care who you are, no one likes a goose egg.''
"I'm happy making my mark doing the little things, like setting a pick for Ray,'' Davis insisted. "I know the fans don't see it, but the coaching staff does. It feels good to pancake a guy and leave Ray wide open.''
When Davis does the dirty work, such as rebounding, taking charges and setting screens, he becomes invaluable. When he throws up contested jumpers with the shot clock at 16 seconds, he becomes a liability.
The big four can handle those clutch shots when the game is on the line. But their success in converting them will depend on their stamina, their minutes and a second unit that needs to develop some mojo -- soon.
Jackie MacMullan, who has spent nearly 20 years as a beat writer and columnist in Boston, is a columnist for ESPNBoston.com.