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The Celtics are playing for the future, not the now

Irving missed a game-sealing layup. Hayward’s inbound pass was intercepted on the final possession. The morning after a close loss in Indianapolis, the Celtics are fine.

NBA: Preseason-Boston Celtics at Charlotte Hornets Jeremy Brevard-USA TODAY Sports

Amidst the Twitter storm of complaining about refs and the free-throw disparity against the Pacers in Indiana, Kyrie Irving’s poor defense on Victor Oladipo’s game-winning 3, and the Celtics again for the second consecutive game shooting more threes than twos, there was this critical yet insightful tweet from The Ringer’s Bill Simmons:

That’s a hard truth that might be tough to swallow. As vaunted as that Death Lineup East appears on paper, it’s been tough sledding so far for Boston’s Big Five. In 73 total minutes, Kyrie Irving-Jaylen Brown-Jayson Tatum-Gordon Hayward-Al Horford have sported a 1.1 NetRtg and are dead even in plus-minus. The sample size excuse has shrunk as the season nears its 10-game benchmark, and at this point, some fans like Simmons are ready to jump to conclusions, particularly after a close loss.

Even though Kyrie Irving’s improvement has been more pronounced this week with three consecutive solid games, there’s an argument (admittedly, a weak one) that could have been made to start Rozier when the season began. Kyrie was still getting his legs underneath him, and Rozier turned in an impressive preseason, picking up right where he left off in the playoffs. Kyrie could have sharpened his fangs against opposing teams’ second units while Rozier kept the starting point guard seat warm (while simultaneously upping his trade value).

Detroit Pistons v Boston Celtics Photo by Maddie Meyer/Getty Images

Hayward is a more curious predicament. The fact of the matter is that he isn’t right...yet. While he seems to be gaining confidence in his leg and, more importantly, his game, he’s been dealing with routine ankle soreness after every game. He’s clearly not himself and, as Simmons pointed out, is hurting the team on both ends of the floor. Last night, it meant a notch in the loss column rather than a win. In what could be a tight Eastern Conference where Kawhi Leonard has looked like Kawhi Leonard, Giannis Antetokounmpo is a legit MVP candidate in Milwaukee, and the Philadelphia 76ers remain a wild-card contender, playoff jockeying could start as early as November. As Brad Stevens says, “This is a job with a scoreboard.”

Why not start Marcus Morris, who isn’t on a minutes restriction and came to camp healthier than he did last season? If closing lineups are fluid, should the starters be, too? Mook has been Boston’s best player over the Celtics’ first nine games on and off the floor. He has an EFG% of 65.6% and is third in scoring with 15.7 points per game in just 26.1 minutes. He’s an early candidate for Sixth Man of the Year, but if you’re of the mind that Brad Stevens should be starting his best players, Morris would definitely be in that opening lineup.

But what’s going to get Hayward right is playing time, plain and simple. Basketball is a game of chemistry and feel, an unspoken language and intuition. Unlike football or baseball where you’re sharing the playing field with enough people for a Thanksgiving dinner where you might just not get to talking to your distant aunt at the other end of the table, hoops is more intimate and immediate. Split-second decisions can be made with a head nod or a darting of the eye. Try getting Aunt Shirley from Florida to pass the potatoes on a back cut by just raising your eyebrows.

There’s an element of faith in all this, too. Just as Boston was confident that their shots would start falling despite an ice-cold start from behind the arc, Brad Stevens and his coaching staff are sure that as Hayward and Kyrie get up to speed, they’re also benefiting from playing next to the guys in October and November that they’ll be in the trenches with in May, June, and July. This is as much a chemistry experiment as it is a jigsaw puzzle. I am a big fan of Moneyball, more so the movie than the book. It’s not because of the analytics—even though Danny Ainge and Co. have fully embraced that modern NBA movement—but because of its absolute conviction in people. The numbers are the numbers, but the players themselves, with all their personalities, their history, and their families in tow, have to perform.

Last night, Hayward threw a final turnover to end that heartbreaking loss in Indianapolis before Kyrie flubbed a layup to seal it and subsequently lost Oladipo on a screen for the game-winner. Those are mistakes that everybody owned up to in the post-game pressers, and they’ll be better for it moving forward because ultimately, they were in position to make them.

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