After blowing another 20+ point lead to an LA team, Brad Stevens commended former Celtics head coach Doc Rivers for the Clippers’ “great teamness and resolve.” Stevens continued his praise, saying, “you don’t come back from 20-point deficits if you don’t really like each other and pull for each other. I think those guys show that night after night and it’s a real credit to the staff and all those players that are there and aren’t there.”
When asked about the trend of going up big in the first half only to crumble in the second, Stevens responded. “I think I need to look at myself first and figure out what I can do to help that not happen. If that means we need to play different rotations, call different things, start different in quarters...whatever the case may be, there’s an answer out there and we need to find it.”
This has been a disappointing trend for the 2018-2019 Celtics: stretches of great play followed by confounding losing streaks and disgruntled rumblings out of the locker room. In late November, a drastic change to the starting lineup changed the Celtics fortunes. Speed bumps in December and January were smoothed over by health and a home-heavy schedule. But with twenty-six games left and the seventh most difficult schedule in the NBA highlighted with road games in Milwaukee, Philadelphia, Toronto, and Golden State, Brad Stevens could look to make even more changes.
Losing streaks, especially one at the hands of the rival Lakers and ravaged Clippers, tend to elicit some prisoner-of-the-moment hot takes because if you widen the scope just a little bit, the Celtics have been really good with the starters and the second unit. Over the last fifteen games, the starters have dominated teams with a 13.2 NetRtg (117.0 OffRtg, 103.8 DefRtg). Not to be outdone, the core bench foursome of Terry Rozier, Jaylen Brown, Gordon Hayward, and Aron Baynes sported an 11.9 NetRtg (108.2 OffRtg, 96.3 DefRtg); with Theis filling in for Baynes, they haven’t skipped a beat with an 8.4 NetRtg (106.3 OffRtg, 97.9 DefRtg).
The Celtics have been good of late, but Marcus Morris’ post-game comments after blowing a 28-point lead to the scrappy Clippers echo what’s been plaguing this team all year. Even during a stretch where they’ve won a ton of games and played their best basketball, “it hasn’t been fun for a long time” and “if they want to take me out of the starting lineup and get some juice in there, I’m with it.”
Move Gordon Hayward into the starting lineup
With Kyrie Irving day-to-day with a sprained right knee, it’s conceivable that he’s out on Tuesday in Philadelphia and vs. Detroit on the back-to-back in Boston. My suspicion is that the Celtics training staff will play it close to the vest and he’ll cautiously sit out the next ten days (including the All Star Game next weekend) rather than risk his long term plans with the Celtics this season and beyond.
In that case, they’ll need to fill his spot in the starting five. The most logical move would be to replace Irving with Rozier. In the nine games that Kyrie has missed this season, Rozier has filled in admirably as a starter, averaging 14.2 points, 5.9 assists, 5.6 rebounds, and shooting 41.5% from behind the arc.
With the stark difference in production between Starter Terry and Bench Terry, Rozier is the most likely replacement, but Morris’ comments about “taking (him) out of the starting lineup and get(ting) some juice in there” do open the door for another change: Hayward and Morris switching roles again.
Much of the Celtics ceiling in the post season depends on Hayward hitting his. With just over a quarter of the regular season to go, this is a good time to see what they have in the former All Star. Since the new year, Hayward has ramped up his aggressiveness running pick-and-roll from the top of the key and attacking defensive seams with his dribble. Unfortunately, his approach has been the same, but the results have been inconsistent.
Hayward can be “just another guy” for this team, camping out in the corners and attacking close outs, but his best self is as a table setter for the rest of the team. His assist numbers this year are on par with his All-Star season in Utah (playing ten less minutes per game), but his scoring is way down. It’s a chicken-and-egg question for GH: will putting him in playmaking situations opening up his scoring or will making him a primary scorer translate to passing opportunities? Only more time will tell and time is running out.
More mixing-and-matching with Al Horford
The substitution pattern for the Celtics is pretty simple. Starters Morris, Smart, and Tatum are replaced by Hayward, Rozier, and Brown sometime after the first media time out. Irving and Horford play a little longer in the 1st and 3rd quarters with Morris and Baynes/Theis subbing in for them around the quarter break. Finally, Hayward replaces Morris at the end of Morris’ second stint. There’s occasional crossover, but there are definitive line changes in Stevens’ rotation. Here are a couple of tinkers that might help.
Over the last fifteen games, Horford has been averaging about 9 minutes in the odd quarters and 6 minutes in the even quarters. There’s little overlap with his playing time and the second unit’s, but as the hub of the offense, he could really help the bench. Instead of 9/6 splits, 6/9 splits with more time with the second unit could prevent these third quarter slumps the Celtics have suffered recently. It’s similar to how the Warriors employ Draymond Green; Golden State’s Swiss Army knife usually plays three separate stints her half, spreading his do-it-all skillset across several different lineup combinations.
The Celtics aren’t hurting for center depth either. Even without Baynes, Daniel Theis has filled in nicely. Over the last nine games, Theis has been a +54 and despite the last two losses, Theis has played really well in both of them.
Target a locker room changer in the buyout market
As seemingly insignificant filling out that 15th roster spot may same, it could prove to be the necessary course correction the Celtics need heading into the choppy waters of the playoffs. It’s a difficult needle to thread for Ainge; Boston already runs nine deep and aren’t exactly in the market for another rotation player, but if they can change the chemistry more so in the locker room than on the floor, that’s value added that would go beyond the x’s and o’s and numbers in the box score.
The Warriors have used DeMarcus Cousins’ return as a boost of adrenaline to fuel their recent run (and mask their internal strife from earlier in the season because winning is a cure all). There isn’t a Boogie in the buyout market, but the trade deadline has generated quite the list of castaways that could help. The big question is who?
CelticsBlog’s Daniel Poarch has put together a pretty good list and I’ll take the leader of the poll so far, Robin Lopez. Lopez won’t unseat Baynes as the bench’s bouncer, but he’s the type of role player that won’t rock the boat. A paint protector and enforcer between the lines tempered by a light-hearted sense of humor off the court could make a guy like Lopez invaluable. Think P.J. Brown or Rasheed Wallace. Depending on his health, reuniting Markieff with his brother in Boston could be an interesting addition. Vets Marcin Gortat and Zach Randolph are “break glass in case of emergency” bigs, too.
This may not exactly be the KonMari method. Marie Kondo might have suggested trading out some players that don’t spark joy (Morris seems to have a list of guys that are acting as “individuals”), but Ainge decided to hoard assets until the next swap-and-shop this summer. If the Celtics have championship aspirations, they’ll have to tidy up (their egos and personal agendas) and maximize their storage (and talent). This will be Brad Stevens’ most challenging season ever, but like he said, “there’s an answer out there and we need to find it.”