BOSTON -- Boston Celtics coach Doc Rivers was about to scold one of his big men for being caught out of position on a defensive rotation, but before he could get the words out, the typically reserved Brandon Bass upbraided his teammate.
Rivers' scowl quickly became a smile.
"It's great, he was upset at someone early in the game because they were in the wrong position and I was thinking, 'Wow, that's really new," Rivers said. "And that's really nice. That's good, so maybe it's a blessing."
That blessing Rivers is referring to, impossible as it sounds, is the absence of Kevin Garnett.
The Celtics had dropped seven of their last nine games before escaping TD Garden with a 98-93 victory over the Detroit Pistons on Wednesday night. But at least one positive has emerged as Boston navigates the rocky waters without Garnett, its defensive anchor. Bass seems to not only be regaining his 2011-12 form, but also is emerging as a more vocal defensive presence.
"To be honest with you, I'd rather play with Kevin and have him out there because he's like a big brother and I'm the little brother," said Bass, who scored 17 points on 6-of-8 shooting to go along with a team-high seven rebounds and three blocks in Wednesday's win.
"But when your big brother's not around, it's time for you to step up and grow up, basically. So it just gave me the opportunity to grow up, to play the big brother role."
Including the night that Garnett originally tweaked his left ankle in New Orleans, Bass has averaged 12.3 points, 6 rebounds, 1.9 assists and 1.6 blocks over 31.4 minutes per game. That's far more in line with last season's production (12.5 points, 6.2 rebounds over 31.7 minutes per game) than this year's underwhelming totals (8.1 points, 5.2 rebounds over 27.3 minutes per game for the season).
This is the sort of inspired play the Celtics expected when they inked Bass to a three-year, $19.4 million extension this offseason. But dig deeper and his recent play shines even brighter.
Over the past nine games, Bass is averaging 1.067 points per play, according to Synergy Sports data. If he maintained that number, he would be among the 15 most efficient scorers in the league (alongside the Durants and LeBrons of the world).
Bass is shooting 56 percent from the floor in that nine-game span and seems to have benefited from shuffling a bit closer to the basket. From 8 to 16 feet, Bass is shooting a glossy 82.4 percent (14-of-17; he's only 6-of-21 beyond 16 feet).
Bass admitted he's slowly starting to emerge from a shooting funk that he's been mired in for much of the season.
But Bass has made the biggest strides on the other end of the floor. Over the past nine games, Bass is allowing a mere 0.684 points per play, according to Synergy data. To put that in perspective, that's an Avery Bradley-caliber number (for the season, Bradley has allowed 0.695 points per play, best in the NBA among those with at least 400 plays defended).
Bass already was eighth on that list at 0.761 points per play, but the fact that he's elevated his defensive game without Garnett is unexpected.
"Maybe the blessing is, without Kevin, we've removed the security blanket," Rivers said. "And Brandon, he has to be the talker now on defense."
Bass still is prone to the occasional missed rotation (but maybe not as frequently as before, when teammates were the ones scolding him) and taller bigs still tend to get above him for rebounds (although his strength allows him to compete around the glass despite giving up size). But Bass has stepped into the big brother role lately and nothing shows it more than him holding his teammates accountable.
"When Kevin's out there, he's going to do the majority of the talking and I'm going to play more of a background role," Bass said. "But with him being out, yeah, I have to step up and be more vocal and play a bigger role as far as talking on the defensive end."
Bass also has carved out a niche as someone who's willing to make the hustle plays and scrap for 50/50 balls. While his offensive production has increased without Garnett, he's aware that it's the little plays that don't always show up in the box score that will aid Boston most when Garnett returns.
"I just think that you've got to have someone out there to do the little things," Bass said. "When we have Paul [Pierce] and Kevin out there, and Jeff [Green] and [Jason Terry], all those guys making plays offensively, you need guys to make the smaller plays. Night in and night out, it's going to be different roles that I play and I'm cool with that."
Much of Boston's focus over the two weeks without Garnett has been getting the most out of individuals, hoping to get role players such as Bass firing on all cylinders before the postseason arrives.
Bass is confident he's simply growing as a player and carving out his role with the team. His offensive production might dip when Garnett returns, but he believes he can still impact the game.
Little brother has grown up a bit without big brother.
Statistical support provided by NBA.com.