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Lost boys: pairing Jaylen Brown and Terry Rozier could reignite the young stars of last year’s playoffs

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NBA: Chicago Bulls at Boston Celtics Bob DeChiara-USA TODAY Sports

Twenty-game sample sizes are just too small to judge anything, especially at the beginning of the season when teams are experimenting with lineups, player combinations, and roles. But not all twenty games are the same. Last spring, the Celtics played three playoff series--two that went the distance--and that roster of plucky young players nearly made it to The Finals. Terry Rozier and Jaylen Brown spearheaded that group through nineteen post-season battles and while they’ve underperformed this year, that sample size speaks louder than this November speed bump and their demotions to the bench.

It’s easy to forget how good Brown and Rozier were last April and May. With both averaging healthy playing time in the mid-30’s in minutes, Brown was second on the team in scoring at 18 points per game and Rozier chipped in on the boards and with assists with nearly six each a night. Scary Terry took off that included a bromance with Drew Bledsoe and Brown made the leap in his sophomore season.

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

So far this season, it’s been a different story. With their minutes slashed, both have struggled to find a rhythm. Rozier told The Athletic’s Jay King:

How tough has it been for all you guys to sacrifice? From watching you guys, I think that’s been one of the toughest parts for you.

It’s definitely tough, man. It’s definitely tough. Some guys have more leeway than others, and that’s just what it is. That’s on a lot of teams. And then we’ve got special guys. We’ve got special guys. Gordon Hayward, he’s been special, coming back from an injury. He showed last game what he’s capable of and things like that.* So we’ve got a lot of great talent. Once we put that all together, we’ll be where we want to be.

*(Keep that Gordon Hayward line in mind for later.)

There’s reason to believe that it’ll eventually work out. With a reshuffling of the starting lineup, what wasn’t working in the first twenty games could reinvigorate the second unit like it has the opening five. What Brad Stevens has done is balance the talent of the original starting five with the grittiness of BWA.

Before his injury, Brown seemed lost at times in the offense. Ideally, he’d be the beneficiary of his teammates creating shots for him, but he just wasn’t finishing. He’s shooting 14% lower from behind the arc and hitting below the league average around the rim.

Rozier fall has been more precipitous. His counting stats are more or less the same on a per-36 clip, but he’s gambled a lot on defense and seems to be looking for the big play on offense with a pinch hitter mentality.

In retrospect, the Rozier-Smart combo was never an optimal back court; they’re bulldogs on defense, but their skill sets aren’t complimentary. Brown could still regain his spot next to Kyrie Irving and will play with him often regardless. But because Smart can handle the ball and allow Kyrie to play off ball from time to time, for now, bringing Brown off the bench makes sense.

To their credit, Brown and Rozier together have been lights out defensively. Through nineteen games, they’ve been paired for 155 minutes and sport a DefRtg of 89.2. They’ll add grit to that second unit for sure. Where they’ve struggled is on offense. Neither is a particularly crafty playmaker outside of being able to simply penetrate and kick. At this point in their careers, they’re finishers more than they are distributors.

So, how do you energize a former back court that took LeBron James to the brink that have been much maligned since the season started (with a combined OffRtg of 95.0)? Enter Gordon Hayward.

For the most part, Hayward’s role with the second unit has primarily been as a facilitator running point forward. He’s been a ball handler in a PnR with a big to initiate a set; if he gets deep enough off the dribble, he can pull up for his mid-range fade away or hit the roll man and if the defense sinks in, he’s been able to find the swing side wings.

We’ve already seen chemistry building between Hayward and Rozier already. Outside of Kyrie Irving, Hayward has passed to Rozier the most of any teammate, setting him up for easy catch-and-shoot threes (7-for-19 so far). For Brown, these need to turn into opportunities where he can either shoot the three or preferably attack a retreating defense.

Running PnR’s and kicking it out to shooters is an oversimplified solution to what will be a complex chemistry issue. Hayward won’t solve all of Brown and Rozier’s issues and vice versa. However, it does spread the wealth. Irving has said on multiple occasions that Rozier has starter level talent. Obviously, so do Brown and Hayward. As constructed now (because, of course, things could change as the season moves along), the Celtics’ rotation is a blended mix-and-match of starters and “starter level” players, like RISK armies evenly spread out over the entire map. Instead of saying X and Y player coming off the bench will complement A and B starters, Stevens has empowered Brown and Rozier (and Hayward to an extent) to just be themselves.

After yesterday’s practice, Brown talked about being “100% for (coming off the bench)” and seeing it as a “mindset thing.” He later remarked, “at the end of the day, it’s basketball.” It’s a modest response from the third-year pro who has consistently throughout his career been able to see the big picture. He’s right. It is basketball. Some might see it as a change of roles, but it’s really not. What Brown and Rozier do on the court is dictated by their skills. It’s not as if Stevens is asking them to become screen setters or rim protectors. In a way, this move isn’t so much a reduction of role as it is a cooking reduction. Stevens has boiled down what each player does best and hopefully, made the better sauce.

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