When Boston Celtics coach Doc Rivers is asked about the reasons for the immediate success of the Big Three, he often reflects on how selfless Paul Pierce, Ray Allen and Kevin Garnett were in coming together, each player immediately sacrificing shots and a bit of the spotlight he once owned in his respective city in order to achieve a greater goal of winning as a team.
That sacrifice and an ability to grasp their individual roles contributed heavily to Boston's hoisting a title banner during the 2007-08 season. Now, five years later, members of the Big Three are sacrificing themselves yet again in hopes of repeating the feat.
In a season that already saw Garnett begrudgingly shift to a full-time center in order to mask the team's overall lack of size, Allen is the latest to swallow a bit of his pride while being shuffled to a reserve role given the recent emergence of second-year guard Avery Bradley.
The mere suggestion of moving the league's greatest 3-point shooter and a surefire Hall of Famer to a reserve role sparked feverish debate earlier this week. Allen heard the rumblings and, despite initially rejoining the starting lineup in his return to action Wednesday night against San Antonio, he agreed to come off the bench Thursday night in Chicago -- only the fourth time in his NBA career that he had appeared in a reserve situation.
When asked before his return if he'd be willing to accept a move to the bench, Allen smiled and said, "Whatever Doc needs me to do." But his body language suggested, "Whatever Doc needs me to do -- as long as I'm a starter."
Somewhere over the next 24 hours, Allen had a change of heart. Whether it was forced upon him or not, Rivers made the player look mighty selfless by telling reporters Thursday that it was Allen who agreed to the idea in order to help the team.
In a sport where individual numbers often trump the collective good, both Garnett and Allen have shifted outside their comfort zones in hopes of group success.
Some will lament that the Celtics are 0-1 in the Allen-as-a-reserve era, but the move showed plenty of potential against Chicago. Part of the benefit of having Allen off the bench is that both Pierce and Garnett will get the opportunity to get going early offensively -- Pierce did just that in Chicago, scoring 12 points in the opening frame as the Celtics took an early advantage. Allen then has the chance to provide an offensive spark off the bench, something the team has desperately desired in recent seasons, and he will often be the focal point of the second-unit attack.
On Thursday, Allen finished with 14 points on 5-of-10 shooting over 31 minutes. He was still on the floor during key moments and found ways to be a factor despite going 1-of-4 from 3-point land.
Bradley had one of his quieter offensive games since joining the starting lineup (the team was 5-0 with him as a starter before Allen returned). He chipped in nine points on 4-of-8 shooting, but was hindered by foul trouble over 27 minutes of action.
As with moving Garnett to center, Rivers admitted the idea had been in his mind for a while. The Celtics entered the season with thoughts of moving Garnett to the 5, but it wasn't until the start of the second half that they committed to it full-time. The loss of centers Chris Wilcox and Jermaine O'Neal for the season only made the decision easier.
The Allen-Bradley swap was a little more complex. The Celtics had shown signs of thriving without Allen earlier in the season, going 5-0 without him even before the recent ankle soreness shelved him again. And Rivers seemed to be considering the idea of utilizing Mickael Pietrus with the first unit given the defensive improvements the team saw with him on the floor.
When Allen's ankle sidelined him last month, Pietrus initially took the starting spot, but endured a Grade III concussion in Philadelphia, forcing Bradley into the starting role.
There was some concern that a backcourt of Rajon Rondo and Bradley might be exploited due to a lack of size, but their defensive intensity actually allowed Boston to thrive at both ends of the court. That, coupled with Bradley's own emergence as a scorer, left the Celtics playing maybe their most inspired ball of the season recently.
Rivers still wanted to give Allen some time with the first unit upon his return in order to get him back in a rhythm, but the switch came quickly, and it might be because the numbers are so undeniable.
The Boston starters with Bradley are now plus-24.53 in overall rating differential, posting an offensive rating (points per 100 possessions) of 112.21 and a defensive rating of 87.68 in 111 minutes of court time. Offensively, the team is nearly 13 points better than its season average (99.61) with that lineup and 12 points better than its defensive average (99.22).
What's more, those numbers are even better than the offensive (102.32) and defensive (100.91) ratings posted with Allen with the same starter group over 291 minutes this season.
Time will tell if those stats are sustainable, but if Boston fancies itself as a defensive team, Bradley clearly gives the Celtics the best option at the start of games. Allen gives the bench the best chance at adding scoring and, when Pietrus is able to return, they would provide a powerful 1-2 punch.
Yes, the move made all sorts of sense, but that didn't make it easy to execute. Allen made it easy by being a pro and accepting the shift.
Rivers swears players don't mind whether they are starters or reserves, so long as they get their typical minutes. But it's simply undeniable that a player like Allen -- with 1,141 career starts to his credit -- would be sensitive about a move. And still, for the second time in his career, Allen is sacrificing himself for the better of the team.
The Celtics hope it leads to similar results.