Celtics

Can Brad Stevens fix all that ails the Celtics?

Can Brad Stevens fix all that ails the Celtics?

Maybe Boston Celtics coach Brad Stevens could sense the frustration in his team’s locker room following Saturday’s embarrassing loss to the Los Angeles Clippers because, before the room opened to reporters, Stevens did all he could to direct the criticism for his team’s 28-point collapse to himself.

"I think I need to look at myself first and figure out what I can do to help [Boston giving away big leads] not happen,” said Stevens, whose team fumbled away double-digit leads in consecutive games with disappointing losses to both Los Angeles teams. "If that means we need to play different rotations, call different things, start differently in quarters than we are, whatever the case may be, there’s an answer out there and we just have to find it.”

Where should Stevens start his search for answers? A few thoughts: 

GET SOME MORE JUICE

Stevens noted how Boston’s defense in the middle quarters has been bad all season, particularly compared to the first and fourth quarters. He wondered out loud if he has to manage those minutes better, hinting as possible rotation tweaks.

A look at what Stevens is referring to:

Celtics defensive rating by quarter (with league rank): 
1st          99.2 (1st)
2nd        109.3 (13th)
3rd        109.5 (15th)
4th        104.5 (4th)
Total     105.5 (5th)

The second-quarter woes can be explained away, in part, due to the the way Boston leans on reserve-heavy units early in the second frame. The Celtics’ bench players have struggled with consistency this year, explaining some of the slippage. The third-quarter struggles are a bit more confounding, particularly given how good Boston’s starters have been at the start and end of games. 

The starting 5 that Boston has had in place since Nov. 26, the day Marcus Morris and Marcus Smart shuffled into starting roles, has been one of the best five-man groups in the NBA this season. Among the 23 high-volume lineups with 250+ minutes of floor time this season, Boston’s starting 5 ranks eighth in the NBA with a net rating of plus-11.9.

Slightly more concerning is that Boston’s starting group has a net rating of minus-2.4 over the past five games, a big dropoff from the numbers that had them lingering next to Golden State’s most-common 5-man lineup before diving a bit recently.

Morris went so far as to suggest that the team could shuffle him to a reserve role if it would help.

"We have to genuinely want to win, that has to be the first goal, whatever that change is, I’m with it,” said Morris. "They want to take me out of the starting lineup, get some juice in there, I’m with it, man. But I’m trying to win.”

Morris might have been suggesting that it was time for Jaylen Brown, whose nicknames include Juice, to elevate back to the starting group. 

A better compromise for Stevens might be sticking with the current starting group but examining whether the team needs to tweak lineups at the start of the second half. Stevens often modified his lineups to open the second half in past seasons while searching for certain matchups, advantages, or just a jolt of energy.

TIME(OUT) FOR A CHANGE

Stevens is a card-carrying member of the Gregg Popovich Early Timeout Fan Club. Stevens routinely calls timeouts early in quarters when his team’s execution or focus is suspect. It feels like there’s been an awful lot of early third-quarter timeouts this season, including one just 2:02 into second half on Saturday night after the Clippers chipped a 21-point halftime deficit to 17.

But Stevens noticeably didn’t call a timeout the rest of the third quarter Saturday as Boston’s lead whittled to five. His next timeout didn’t come until there was 3:19 remaining and Boston had fallen behind by four points.

"My err is always on the side of letting us play through it and having to find ways, so you can save those going into the fourth [quarter],” said Stevens. “Ultimately, maybe that’s one of the things I need to do differently with this group. Maybe that’ll help.”

Stevens has often noted how his team needs to be better able to able to stem runs, pointing out the differences between an 11-0 run and, say, a 9-4 burst. 

Stevens likes to stash timeouts for crunch time but he might have to be more willing to call timeout when runs get uncomfortable, regardless of when they happen. Simply being able to draw up a play might help his team stunt a run.

COACHING THROUGH EXPECTATIONS 

Stevens hasn’t been perfect this season and he’d be the first to admit it. But his biggest challenge might be right in front of him now, and it might not be as easy to fix as a rotation change.

On the heels of Morris’ comments about a joyless team, Stevens has to make sure his team rallies in the aftermath of the critique, and doesn’t crumble.

Clearly, the Celtics have struggled with the burden of expectations this season. The team’s identity for much of the Stevens era has been a spunky bunch of overachievers who spit in the face of adversity and play their best basketball when everyone else counts them out.

This year’s team hasn’t routinely displayed the sort of mental toughness that past teams routinely oozed. The uneven start to the season led to frustrations (Marcus Smart venting in Portland) and some finger-pointing (Kyrie Irving calling out the younger players in Orlando, then admitting his missteps as a leader in the aftermath). It’s all contributed to a weird dynamic in the Celtics’ locker room this year, one in which it feels like Boston younger players might be walking on eggshells at times. The speculation about Irving’s future and Boston’s not-so-subtle planned pursuit of Anthony Davis this summer has maybe only added some awkwardness to it all. 

Stevens’ challenge now is getting his players to simply focus on playing basketball. As frustrating as the last two games have been, the Celtics were rolling before that, sandwiching two five-game winning streaks around a competitive loss to the Golden State Warriors.

The Celtics need to get past their lingering issues and simply embrace the championship pursuit. This team is clearly capable of competing with the league’s elite, but Boston has put itself in a tough position by playing down to lesser competition and letting their issues fester this far into the season.

While Stevens and the Celtics have had minor issues in past seasons, this simply feels like a key moment for this year’s group. How the Celtics respond could dictate just how the rest of the season plays out. Stevens has to get his players to rally around the notion of just playing basketball and leaving all the other drama and distractions behind them.

Stevens has to help his team find the joy that Morris says has been fleeting this season.

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Jayson Tatum shining, but Jaylen Brown deserves your attention too

Jayson Tatum shining, but Jaylen Brown deserves your attention too

On any other team, what Jaylen Brown is doing this season would be a dominant storyline.

Brown, however, has been relegated to the shadows in Boston lately amid the Great Jayson Tatum Blossoming of 2020. The 22-year-old Brown has played like an All-Star and yet he’s been upstaged by the 21-year-old who earned an All-Star nod then decided to assert himself as one of the three best players in the Eastern Conference.

With all eyes on Tatum during Boston’s four-game road trip out west, Brown quietly produced four straight games with 20 points or better as the Celtics went 3-1.

Instead of brooding about the lack of attention about his impact, Brown has embraced Tatum’s star turn and what it means for to the bigger picture of Boston’s ability to compete for a title. Brown has seemingly used Tatum’s leap as fuel to keep pushing his own limits.

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Consider this: There are 18 players in the NBA this season averaging better than 20 points, 6 rebounds, and 2 assists per game. It’s pretty much the All-Star rosters with a few young stars mixed in, including Zion Williamson, Brandon Ingram, and Brown.

Even as Tatum erupts for some loud scoring nights — producing his third game of 30+ point during Wednesday’s trip-ending win over the Jazz — Brown has increased his own scoring average this season and at nearly an identical rate. Both players entered Wednesday’s game having increased their scoring average 7.4 points per game from last season.

Yes, Brown has been the beneficiary of the newfound attention that Tatum is drawing. But he’s had moments where he’s simply taken the baton, too.

Take Wednesday night as an example. Tatum went to the bench with 5 minutes to play in the third quarter and Boston down 1. Brown ignited a little run by feeding Marcus Smart for a reverse layup, then scored 10 of Boston’s next 12 points, all in a 2:36 span, culminating with a nifty stepback jumper to put Boston up 6.

The Celtics are now 23-5 this season when Brown scores 20 points or more. With Kemba Walker sidelined with knee soreness, that's made Brown’s offense all the more important. In typical Brown fashion, he shrugs off his own contributions, telling reporters in Utah after Wednesday’s game that he plans to be even better when the playoffs roll around.

The way that Brown has handled missing out on the All-Star game and being overshadowed by Tatum’s emergence speaks volumes about the player. He’s repeatedly said his focus is on the playoffs and helping Boston chase its loftiest postseason goals.

Brown's emergence deserves your attention, though. After all the frustrations of last season, Brown came back this year eager to showcase his true potential. He’s displayed new tricks, especailly his improved ball-handling and a more disciplined approach to attacking the basket.

Brown’s progress, when coupled with Tatum’s emergence, has altered what the Celtics are capable of this season. Boston will jockey with Toronto down the stretch for the No. 2 seed in the East but, regardless of where the Celtics land, they have the necessary talent to push for a Finals berth so long as the core is healthy.

When the postseason rolls around and defenses put even more attention on Tatum and Walker, Brown’s ability to capitalize on weaker defenders will be pivotal for Boston.

Brown’s usage rate is up this season but so is his efficiency. Stats site Cleaning the Glass tracks a metric called PSA — points per shot attempt — and Brown is averaging a career-best 118.8, which ranks in the 78th percentile among all wing players. That’s up from 109.6 last year, which ranked in the 55th percentile.

Brown is shooting a career-best 49.4 percent from the floor and a robust 38.1 percent beyond the 3-point arc. His 6.4 rebounds and 2.1 assists per game are both career highs. Add in inspired defense, routinely checking some of the opponent’s top options, including a lot of bigger bodies, Brown has made an impact at both ends of the court.

According to the NBA’s tracking data, Brown has limited opponents to 43.7 percent shooting this year, or 1.5 percent below those players’ season average. Brown’s versatility has been important, with the NBA’s tracking data suggesting he’s spent just about equal time on guards (47.5 percent of his defensive time) as forwards (45.6), all while logging 6.9 percent of his time on centers.

Like Tatum, the key for Brown is consistency. He’s got to find ways to positively impact winning, even beyond scoring, when Walker is back and Boston has its full complement of wings. But nothing from this season suggests we should expect anything less.

What Brown is doing this year deserves more attention. For as much excitement as there is around Tatum, Boston’s ability to move forward with both young players is an absurd luxury. And it feels like the two have only really scratched the surface on how good they can be.

Brown seems content to simply keep getting better and letting the rest of the league figure out on their own just how impactful he’s become.

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Danny Ainge doesn't view bench scoring as Celtics buyout market need

Danny Ainge doesn't view bench scoring as Celtics buyout market need

The Boston Celtics' roster is heavily front-loaded, and Wednesday night was glaring proof.

The Celtics' starting five accounted for all but 16 of their 144 points in a road win over the Utah Jazz.

Brad Wanamaker (eight points) and Enes Kanter (eight points) were the only bench players who scored for Boston, which now ranks 28th in the NBA in bench scoring at 27.8 points per game.

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Granted, Kemba Walker's absence forced Marcus Smart (17 points) into the starting lineup, and when Walker, Jayson Tatum, Jaylen Brown and Gordon Hayward are all healthy, Smart's 12.6 points per game will come off the bench.

But considering Boston is relying so much on its starters -- who combined for 101 of the team's 112 points versus the Los Angeles Lakers on Sunday -- shouldn't Danny Ainge look to add scoring depth on the buyout market?

The Celtics president of basketball operations didn't seem bullish on that market Thursday.

"Just because guys are available on the buyout market and there's people that average points doesn't mean it makes your team better," Ainge told 98.5 The Sports Hub's "Toucher & Rich."

A handful of notable players -- Tristan Thompson, DeMarcus Cousins and ex-Celtics Isaiah Thomas and Evan Turner among them -- could become available and contribute in the playoffs if they're waived before March 1.

Yet Ainge suggested fans clamoring for big names are often "hoping for a player of a year or two or three years before, and we're not getting what we really need, which is defensive presence, guys that know our system and guys that we know what we are."

As for extra scoring off the bench? Ainge cited his great Celtics teams of the 1980s as proof that bench production is "overrated."

"On our team in the 80s, it was like, 'We need bench scoring.' It's like, 'No you don't. Not when you have five starters that are scoring 120 points (per game),' " Ainge said.

"A lot of teams put their second- or third-best player off the bench. I think that's always overrated, bench scoring. I think depth is important, but you need to have guys that fit into their roles."

With Robert Williams on the mend -- Ainge suggested the Celtics big man could return Saturday against the Houston Rockets -- and Walker hopefully returning soon, Ainge seems content to roll with the squad that's lost just three games in February.

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