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Celtics’ rotation issues rise to the forefront in loss to Knicks

After losing to Utah for the second time, Brad Stevens questioned this team’s toughness. So why aren’t players like Marcus Smart and Aron Baynes seeing the court?

Toronto Raptors v Boston Celtics Photo by Tim Bradbury/Getty Images

This past Saturday, after the Boston Celtics’ second loss to the Utah Jazz in the span of a week, Brad Stevens was not shy about his feelings with the team’s performance.

“We have to build a tougher team mindset than we have,” said Stevens, “I mean, we just don’t have that mindset yet that we need.”

“I had an old friend ... and his phrase that his team used was ‘the game honors toughness,’ and, boy, is that true. You see that, you see that over and over. And I would say that if we’re struggling with the ball going in the hole, that we should just lock into what we need to do better, and that will take care of itself.”

Coach Stevens is certainly not wrong in that feeling. In the hours before last night’s disappointing loss to the New York Knicks, the staff here at CelticsBlog held a roundtable to discuss the Celtics’ early season struggles and for my own blurb, I discussed exactly this phenomenon:

...the team just isn’t playing with the kind of effort that would enable them to “win ugly” ... you blow [a fourth quarter lead against Charlotte] by allowing them multiple offensive rebounds on the same possession in crunch time, or by being so late on defensive rotations that you make 57-year-old Tony Parker look spry.

The offense has certainly been terrible, running remarkably hot-and-cold and missing a ton of wide-open shots. If nothing else, those open shots are something that should correct themselves in due time, and they are by far one of the most specific ways we can predict this team will improve. Additionally, Kyrie Irving and Jayson Tatum have been very much rounding into form, and Gordon Hayward — despite the criticism he’s faced during his recovery — has been figuring things out himself, with a season-high 19 points last night. I still very much believe that the offensive hand-wringing will be quieted and soon.

Still... that doesn’t really excuse the Celtics from some of these recent losses. After all, think back on last season’s team: the 2017 Celtics were not exactly an offense that lit the world on fire; they were a distant 18th in offensive rating for the season, and even during their remarkable 16-game winning streak at the beginning of the year, there were some games that caused us all to collectively pull our hair out. Remember the monumentally ugly comeback against the Hornets after Kyrie’s facial injury?

Those Celtics more or less defined themselves by their ability to win ugly games. As the injuries piled up and the odds continued to stack against them, they still somehow kept on finding ways to defy those expectations. They weren’t making shots, but they were still playing exceptional defense, which kept basically every game close. And in those close games, they made the kinds of plays that could steal away wins; think of Terry Rozier’s steal-and-dunk against the Pacers, or Marcus Smart worming his way into James Harden’s brain to beat the Rockets.

NBA: Boston Celtics at Houston Rockets Erik Williams-USA TODAY Sports

This year’s Celtics haven’t enjoyed those same winning plays, and, like I mentioned before, Stevens seems to know it. So, what’s the problem?

Against the Hornets on Monday, Stevens actually went far enough to make a lineup change: Hayward would be relegated to a second-unit role, while Aron Baynes would resume the starting position he enjoyed for most of last season. A re-emphasis on what made last year’s team successful, perhaps? A shuffling of lineups that might find some more productive lineup combinations amongst all the mess?

Not exactly. Despite his ostensible promotion to the starting lineup, Baynes played only seven minutes total in that game.

In the grand scheme of things, I am far from a Stevens critic. As the Celtics’ coach, he has done some things that I, personally, absolutely never would have thought possible in the moment, but that worked out perfectly in the end (starting Gerald Green in a playoff game comes to mind). Still, right now, decisions like the Baynes start in question have been nagging at me.

After (again, rightfully) critiquing the team’s toughness after that fateful Jazz blowout, Baynes starting could have felt like a statement; as the game went on and Baynes was mostly not a factor, though, it started to feel a little hollow. A newly minted starter, playing just seven minutes for the night? For the season, Baynes has seen less than 14 minutes per game, despite reinventing himself from “decent enough role player” to “legitimate defensive anchor” just last season.

Baynes has not been the only victim of this apparent “toughness” paradox thus far. Smart himself played just 26 minutes in the Hornets game — though, to his credit, he played much of the fourth quarter while chasing around an unbelievably hot Kemba Walker, which is a job few defenders would happily accept, given the circumstances. The two players who arguably contributed the toughest efforts in the early going — Jaylen Brown and Terry Rozier — would see just 19 minutes apiece in the game.

Philadelphia 76ers v Boston Celtics Photo by Adam Glanzman/Getty Images

These complaints arguably reached their most evident point last night against the Knicks. Baynes once again started and, once again, played minimal minutes, despite facing a team that relied heavily on true centers like the paint-bound Enes Kanter (a defensive sieve) or second-round rookie Mitchell Robinson (exceptionally talented, but very inexperienced). For the game, Baynes would play just 12 minutes total, and scrappy backup Daniel Theis would see only four, despite the consistent size and energy the Knicks deployed in the frontcourt. Celtics fans were left asking: why did Baynes even start, if he wasn’t actually a part of the gameplan? What, ultimately, was the point?

Therein lies the primary concern with Stevens’ comments after the second Utah loss: if you’re asking for toughness, why aren’t you playing the people who bring it?

Smart is, without argument, the toughest player on the team. The Celtics re-signed him to the contract they did because, for one thing, he’s the emotional leader of this clubhouse, and for another, his on-court impact is substantially greater than the box score stats might suggest (despite his oft-maligned three-point shooting). He’s by far the most willing to put his body on the line for basically any loose ball, and is also the one most capable of producing momentum-changing plays at almost any point in a given game, based on sheer hustle alone. And yet, despite that, he’s played just 23 minutes per game this season, after logging 30 per game during last year’s campaign.

Baynes and Smart aren’t the only ones drawing the short end of the stick so far, either. Players like Theis or Semi Ojeleye, who added even greater dimensions to the Celtics’ enviable depth last year, have seen fleeting opportunities, at best, so far in their sophomore campaigns. Rookie Robert Williams, a two-time SEC Defensive Player of the Year, still has not gotten a notable opportunity to make an NBA impact. Imported rookie Brad Wanamaker has hardly seen the court, a sharp contrast from last season’s borderline NBA washout Shane Larkin, who proved to be be an essential rotation piece for the team throughout last season.

Theoretically, these lapses in overall playing time can be seen as the product a deeper, more “talented” roster, especially after the reintroduction of Hayward to the team that he never really had an opportunity to play with last season. Still, it’s a bit curious that certain players aren’t getting more of an opportunity if Stevens really believes the roster lacks some level of toughness.

The Celtics are a mess right now. The finger can be pointed at any number of issues, all of which have dramatically fallen short of even the most skeptical preseason expectations. For one particular focus, Coach Stevens says he wants to see “toughness” from this team, but his own patterns of playing time have not necessarily rewarded the players who have provided it the most in any given night. Until they do, the Celtics may find it that much harder to grit out winning efforts than they did last season.

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