BOSTON — For all his obvious talents, there’s been one notable area of Terry Rozier’s game that he’s struggled with maybe more than anything else at the NBA level: Lobs.
Chalk it up in part to Boston’s lack of athleticism (at least before Robert Williams came along) and a more glued-to-the-ground style but Rozier lobs rarely seemed to connect with their intended target in past seasons and Rozier admits he heard plenty of grief about not being able to consistently connect on alley-oop attempts.
Maybe that’s why the third-quarter sequence in Wednesday’s game against the Charlotte Hornets was so jarring. Rozier spotted Jayson Tatum cutting hard from the wing and, attacking off a pump fake from the top of the key, Rozier delivered a little look-away lob that Tatum caught with one hand before delivering a furious slam with four Hornets in the painted area just watching him soar.
The sequence left Celtics owner Wyc Grousbeck exploding out of his chair, hands raised in celebration, while Guerschon Yabusele and the Celtics’ bench tripped all over each other in jubilation.
“I was going to shoot it and then I just seen him point up. So I just threw it up there,” said Rozier. "Everybody’s been on me about my lobs so I was just trying to throw it up there and we connected.”
So he’s aware of the lob criticism?
“Nah, I don’t hear it,” Rozier added with a sly smile before departing from his postgame chat with reporters.
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Rozier finished with 17 points and 10 assists in Bostons’ 126-94 thumping of the visiting Hornets and delivered another solid start in the absence of Kyrie Irving, who missed his second straight game with a left hip strain.
It’s often been noted how crisp the Celtics’ ball movement appears in the absence of Irving. Boston put up a eye-popping 34 assists on 50 field goals on Wednesday night and the ball movement — like Rozier’s lob — fueled a 35-point third quarter in which Boston raced away with the game.
Rozier tried his best to explain exactly why the ball tends to pop when Irving isn’t on the court.
"When we play with [Irving], it’s more like a show. We sit back and watch -- watch him go crazy,” said Rozier. “And, without him, obviously we don’t know who the scoring’s really going to come from so somebody’s gotta step up. And we just try to find our way.
"But with or without him we’re still trying to do good things.”
The Celtics improved to 6-2 in games without Irving this season. It’s worth noting that Irving’s absence has typically been against lesser competition, which aids Boston’s .750 winning percentage, but Boston also owns an offensive rating of 117.6 in the eight games without Irving this season, averaging 115 points behind 29 assists per game.
In the 43 games with Irving, Boston’s offensive rating is 112 and they average 112 points behind 25.5 assists per game. Now, before you run and suggest that Boston’s offense is somehow better without Irving, it’s not as easy as looking at the games he’s played versus the one he’s missed. Boston’s offensive rating is a team-best 113.4 when Irving is on the court this season (1,403 minutes) and it nosedives to 103.5 without him (1,065 minutes) when you look at his on/off splits as a whole.
The Celtics have simply done a good job of stepping up in Irving's absence. Like the rest of us, these Celtics have a way of getting caught staring at Irving when he has the ball in his hands.
"I mean, he’s arguably one of the best offensive players in this game today,” said Rozier. "So however y’all want to put it, if y’all was out there you’d all [get caught watching].”
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As the Celtics, winners of seven of their last eight, look to surge in the East standings and try to harness their best basketball before the postseason arrives, there is maybe no bigger challenge over the last 31 games than figuring out how to get Starter Terry consistency from Backup Terry. It might go a long way towards bringing the best the consistency its lacked as a group.
On Wednesday night, typical reserves Jaylen Brown (24 points, 10 rebounds) and Gordon Hayward (12 points) both got it going, Boston’s ability to change games with its bench has been obvious this season.
Rozier has struggled to be as efficient in lesser minutes and even his teammates know they’ve got to harness his starter abilities.
"I think that takes place with a lot of people. You get to start the game, you get to find your rhythm, you don’t have to come in, the game’s already going back and forth, guys are already warm and you have to come right in and go straight into 100 mph on both ends,” said Marcus Smart, who is one of the few Celtics who has thrived in both starting and reserve roles.
"I love [Terry’s energy with first group]. I wouldn’t change it,” said Smart. "We encourage him to continue to do that even when he doesn’t start, and just continue to bring that edge for us.”
The difference in Rozier’s stater versus bench splits has become more pronounced lately. While his per-36 shot totals aren’t very different (13.1 shots per game in both roles) he’s shooting markedly better as a starter (47.2 percent overall, 41.7 percent from 3-point land as a starter versus 35.9 percent overall, 33.5 percent from 3 as a reserve).
Maybe the more jarring number: Rozier averages three assists more per 36 minutes as a starter. Now, some of that might simply be playing with a first-unit group that’s had more consistency this year. But it also reflects how Rozier is maybe more willing to make the right play instead of forcing his own offense at times.
As the trade deadline approaches, there are some that will suggest that the Celtics have spotlighted Rozier — a restricted free agent this summer — with hopes of attracting offers. Rozier routinely downplays the deadline and has suggested he expects to be here after the deadline.
The Celtics have certainly seen the value of having a backup point guard they can trust to fill Irving’s shoes. Boston doesn’t get to the cusp of the NBA Finals without Rozier last season and maybe things don’t go as smoothly in Irving’s absence this season if Rozier isn’t giving the team a jolt while filling Irving’s shoes.
Rozier was quick to point out that having Irving on the Boston bench, even when he’s not playing, is a big help for his own game.
"Just point guard advice. But he’s always been that way, whether during the game, at practice, text message, he’s always there as a guy with knowledge that can help me see the game there,” said Rozier. "That’s the most important thing: Just helping me see the game as a young player.
“It’s very valuable. Obviously, we watched him before we teamed up with each other a lot and I respect his game. So it’s just to have him right here in my corner. It’s special.”
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