Celtics

No simple fix for Celtics but clear something has to change

No simple fix for Celtics but clear something has to change

BOSTON — One of the more curious aspects of the Boston Celtics’ maddening 2018-19 season has been Brad Stevens’ penchant for letting his team play through its struggles.

That’s long been Stevens’ philosophy but it’s been amplified by Boston’s inconsistent ways, both in the micro (in-game, when opponents go on big runs) and macro (sticking with lineups, rotations despite underwhelming recent returns). 

It reflects the unwavering confidence that Stevens has in his players but, in the absence of results, it’s fair to wonder if this team simply needs a shorter leash than those past teams that Stevens could let fight through what ailed them.

We’ve seen instances of Stevens being more aggressive with his timeouts lately in hopes of quelling the staggering amount of 12-0 type runs that opponents seem to routinely launch. But Stevens has remained reluctant to alter his starting lineup (outside of injuries and rest, at least) and it’s fair to wonder if time is running out on any potential experimentation that could have been done before the postseason arrives.

After Sunday’s latest eyesore of a loss to the San Antonio Spurs, Stevens was asked directly about the lineup and maintained that it’s something he thinks about often but also suggested that any lineups he’d like to explore are further limited by player availability.

MORE CELTICS

Stevens was asked if there had been any thought to going back to the original starting 5 — Kyrie Irving, Jaylen Brown, Gordon Hayward, Jayson Tatum, and Al Horford — which would offer Boston its most skilled and versatile five-man group, albeit one that struggled mightily out of the gates of the season.

"I think about that every day. But I don’t know if it’s the original starting lineup,” said Stevens. "I don’t know if it’s better rotations. I think you’re always thinking about [lineup tweaks]. And, inevitably, you can make a case for everything. And you could go through every game this year and make a case and look at it because we have a lot of guys that are fairly alike. 

"The one thing as we move forward, we are going to need, based on our matchup, to settle on the best things for each series. I don’t know that that will be our starting lineup that we’ve been starting. But I’m more worried about the last 42 minutes than the first 6, so I do think that’s another factor in that.”

There’s a lot to digest there. Let’s start with Boston’s current preferred stating 5 that features Marcus Smart and Marcus Morris with Irving, Tatum, and Horford. That original lineup flip in late November spurred some of Boston’s best basketball of the year and, especially as Hayward and Brown started to thrive in bench roles, seemed to offer the sort of great potential that encouraged Stevens to endure these bumps.

But as the Celtics have fizzled since early February, so too has that starting group. Boston’s starting 5 has logged 162 minutes together in 12 appearances since the All-Star break — no other lineup has played more than 26 minutes together in that span — and own a gruesome net rating of minus-6.7 in that span, which includes a defensive rating of 112.1 (or 5.2 points per 100 possessions worse than Boston’s season rating). The Celtics are 5-7 in those games.

Stevens has routinely noted that the first six minutes of games are not a concern for him. Maybe they should be. Since the All-Star break, the starting 5’s net rating in first quarters is minus-7.9 over 70 total minutes, which includes an anemic offensive rating of 96.8. While it’s undeniable that decent starts don’t always ensure Celtics success — see all the double-digit leads the team has kicked away recently — it simply feels like this team is overdue to explore tweaks that might force it outside the malaise that exists now and potentially restore the level of defensive intensity that’s gone missing.

The notion of shuffling Morris and/or Smart back to a bench role shouldn’t suggest they are at fault for the team’s inconsistencies, in much the same way that Brown and Hayward shouldn’t have been the fall guys earlier in the year. Morris is marred in an obvious shooting slump that, much like many of his teammates, has bled into his defensive consistency. They need him playing at a high level in the postseason, regardless of role. But as Brown and Hayward make strides with their own play — particularly with a much-needed dash of aggression towards the basket — it’s simply interesting to wonder how the team might respond to a re-infusion.

As Stevens is quick to point out, we all obsess too much over who starts games. What matters is how it all works together. But it’s clear, right now, that this current iteration has sputtered and something needs to give.

MORE CELTICS

Sometimes teams just need a change. There seems little harm in experimenting when you consider the wheels have already come off and this team is grinding down the Mass Pike with sparks flying from both axles. What complicates matters is that there are only eight games remaining and Stevens must balance finding rest for his players before the postseason grind starts. 

True as ever, this team never quite makes anything easy on itself.

It was interesting to hear Stevens acknowledge that he’s likely to tweak lineups when the postseason arrives. This isn’t all that unexpected, not from a coach who famously deployed the likes of Gerald Green and Semi Ojeleye in must-win playoff games in recent seasons.

Some of Boston’s best basketball recently has come with two-big lineups. It’s a tiny sample size but, since the All-Star break, Horford and Aron Baynes own a net rating together of plus-39.7 in 26 minutes of floor time, with a glitzy defensive rating of 93.1. 

It speaks again to Baynes’ impact, particularly for a Boston team that has lost a bit of its defensive identity while Baynes has navigated an injury-plagued season.  It feels like Baynes is going to be quite important to Boston in the postseason, particularly considering the bigs they might encounter.

Finding other two-man units that inspire confidence recently is tricky, though it’s worth noting that the Hayward-Tatum (plus-19.7, 176 minutes since Feb. 1) and Hayward-Irving (plus-13.6, 191 minutes since Feb. 1) pairings have both been stellar during Boston’s funk. It seems to scream for Hayward to rejoin the first unit to see how that group reacts to his presence.

Based on his play, Brown deserves to elevate as well but, if considering his bench impact at the moment, it’s understandable if he stays in a backup role.

Ultimately, there are no easy answers here. It’s fair to wonder if Boston’s problems are more mental than necessarily who’s on the court. As Stevens pointed out after Sunday’s loss, he’s never coached a team that’s solely reliant on whether it makes shots to dictate its intensity level. 

“I don’t want to be a team, and I’ve never been a part of a team, that was solely reliant on whether you make shots or not,” said Stevens. “And, right now, in the last month, that’s our deal. We’re just relying on whether we make shots. 

"Instead of being a buckle-down, get stops, find a way to win. Nothing better than winning when you’re 5 for 35 or 7 for 35 from 3. That means you’ve figured out what’s important and you’re going to play to that every night.”

Stevens needs to figure out what groups give this team the best chance to restore its identity and play consistent two-way basketball. There’s no obvious, quick-fix solution but this team cannot continue to hope that the arrival of the postseason will trigger the urgency that the regular season has so clearly lacked.

Something needs to change, or the results will stay the same.

Click here to download the new MyTeams App by NBC Sports! Receive comprehensive coverage of your teams and stream the Celtics easily on your device.

Kemba Walker sheds light on decision to sign with Celtics over Knicks

Kemba Walker sheds light on decision to sign with Celtics over Knicks

Kemba Walker was this close to becoming a New York Knick instead of a Boston Celtic last summer.

Before signing a four-year, $141 million contract with the C's, Walker considered the Knicks in free agency. The 30-year-old said last fall he believed Boston was "just a better fit" for him despite New York being his hometown team.

Walker shed more light on whether he had serious interest in joining the Knicks during this week's episode of The Ringer's "R2C2" podcast.

Don't miss NBC Sports Boston's coverage of Celtics-Raptors, which begins Friday at 8 p.m. with Celtics Pregame Live followed by tip-off at 9 p.m. You can also stream the game on the MyTeams App.

“To be honest, yes. Yes. Very serious, very,” Walker said ... "Before Boston actually came along, the Knicks were one of my top priorities, actually, because I was thinking they were gonna get another player. But it didn’t work out.”

Watch below:

New York was rumored to be in the running to sign Kyrie Irving and/or Kevin Durant, but both stars chose the Brooklyn Nets instead. It was a rough offseason for the Knicks, to say the least.

In his first year as a Celtic, Walker is averaging 20.8 points and 4.8 assists per game. The four-time All-Star has dealt with a nagging knee injury over the last several months but is encouraged by the progress he's made in the Orlando bubble.

"For me to feel like myself again, it definitely feels good. Just gives me a lot of confidence heading into those games," Walker said on the "R2C2" podcast.

The C's will need a healthy Walker if they're to have a shot at Banner 18.

To listen to the full episode, go here.

Celtics Talk Podcast: Can Romeo Langford, Robert Williams shine vs. Raptors?

Celtics Talk Podcast: Can Romeo Langford, Robert Williams shine vs. Raptors?

The Boston Celtics gave their best performance of the NBA's restart in Wednesday night's blowout win over the Brooklyn Nets, and a boost from two of their most recent first-round picks played a key role in the victory.

Boston's bench scoring has been hit or miss in the seeding games so far, but the second unit didn't disappoint against the Nets. Second-year center Robert Williams scored a career-high 18 points with five rebounds and three blocks. Rookie guard Romeo Langford didn't make a huge impact offensively with only four points, but his defense was fantastic. 

Don't miss NBC Sports Boston's coverage of Celtics-Raptors, which begins Friday at 8 p.m. with Celtics Pregame Live followed by tip-off at 9 p.m. You can also stream the game on the MyTeams App.

The Nets are one of the worst teams in the Orlando bubble, so while the performances of Williams and Langford are no doubt encouraging, the Celtics need these guys to make a similar impact versus the top teams in the Eastern Conference, too. 

On a new episode of the Celtics Talk Podcast, our C's insider Chris Forsberg gives his take on Williams' and Langford's play so far, and what the future holds for them with the playoffs approaching.

"Here's what I think Brad will take away. He'll sit back and he'll say, none of these guys have really stepped up and grasped their opportunity through the scrimmage games and early seeding games, and with a chance because Kemba (Walker) was out and the starters didn't play a lot of minutes (against the Nets), (the young guys) finally sort of grasped the opportunity," Forsberg said. "But again, it's what you do from there. ... It's not like you have one good game and (Celtics coach Brad Stevens) just throws you in there. If I had to guess which rookie is still most likely to have the biggest impact, I'm starting to lean toward Langford because he has shown defensively that you can put him in there and even in small bursts of minutes be able to give you something, and to be a steady presence. I think that's important.

Celtics Talk Podcast: Can Rob Williams, Langford help C's carry momentum vs Raptors? | Listen & subscribe | Watch on YouTube

"It's nice to see Rob Williams out there, and there were still a good amount of defenses lapses -- a lot of which he makes up for because he's so athletic. But when I convene the Robert Williams fan club for our weekly meeting tonight, I'm going to tell the congregation, look, let's not get too high or too low, we have to see Rob come back and build off (Wednesday night). My hope is that Rob is the first guy in the gym, even on an off day after two games. That he's in there working, busting his butt and showing that he's ready for that opportunity. If he does that, he's got a better chance to get some minutes. If he got a DNP (against the Raptors), I wouldn't be shocked because that's how Brad operates. But Grant (Williams), Romeo -- one of those guys is going to get a chance in the playoffs and they have to be ready for that opportunity."

Robert Williams could see some action versus the Raptors for the simple fact that Toronto is a pretty big team. He would be a good matchup against Raptors center Marc Gasol or power forward Serge Ibaka. Grant Williams also has good size and a high defensive IQ, so he could match up against those Raptors big men as well. 

Coaches typically shorten their rotations in the playoffs and only give minutes to players they can trust. But there are plenty of scenarios, including foul trouble, injuries, etc., that force guys at the end of the bench to play a role. For the Celtics to make a deep playoff run, they'll need young players such as Langford and both Williams' to give them some good minutes against contending teams. 

One of the best ways to find out which players are capable of handling that burden is actually giving them minutes before the playoffs, and Friday's game against the Raptors is a good opportunity to see how these young guys respond.

Check out the latest episode of the Celtics Talk Podcast on your favorite podcast app or watch it on YouTube below.