Hackett: For Celtics, it’s time to focus on winning games and maybe bruising egos…

Jim Hackett
November 28, 2018 - 10:35 pm

USA Today Sports

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It’s both incomplete and cliché to say that now is the time when Brad Stevens will really earn his stripes as a coach. He’s earned it in spades already with incremental overachievement year after year. His Celtics teams were overachieving, fighting hard and incrementally improving even well prior to the arrival of Isaiah Thomas back at the 2015 NBA Trading Deadline. So in terms of getting underdogs to over-perform, he’s a proven commodity as a coach and better than most.

How about getting favorites to perform up to their level? That is yet to be proven.

So the bright-eyed young coach and his roster packed with all-stars and future stars currently sit in a land of mediocrity, underperforming. This is an unfamiliar place for any recent Celtics basketball team, one that we haven’t seen in a long time, perhaps even pre-dating the arrival of Kevin Garnett and Ray Allen.

So what now? Start prioritizing winning and if some star egos or the egos of budding stars need to be humbled along the way then so be it. Stevens needs to get this team on track with a quarter of the 2018-2019 season already gone. This, the 2018-2019 season is the one that finally came with high expectations and championship aspirations. Thus far, expectations are far from being met and it’s not even close.

Monday night’s win in New Orleans was a good start and with it, comes a rare chance for a mid-week break and the opportunity for two wins in a row this season, as the lowly Cleveland Cadaverliers come to town on Friday night. The Celtics need that win without exception to get on a much needed roll. It needs to be a blowout win too, so some form of confidence can be restored to this team struggling to find its way to consistency. If there’s no Gino sighting on the Jumbotron Friday night, the game will be a failure and a needed opportunity will be missed.

Beyond the need for wins and consistency, changes need to be made and Stevens needs to force it. There’s too much talent and expectation to prolong this mediocrity. I understand the need to get Gordon Hayward’s NBA legs to form and it seems to be coming around ever so slowly of late. However, with 10 games in the loss column already, his sea legs may best be developed in practice. If Hayward is playing well enough to earn 30-plus minutes on a given night then roll with it, but if he’s not, 20 minutes will do. Again, sort out the sea legs in practice.

Right now I’d rather see more of Marcus Morris and for that matter Marcus Smart getting the key minutes because with them I know that both the legs and the attitude will be there. I’m not saying Hayward doesn’t have the attitude or the grit, I’m sure he does, but the consistency isn’t there yet and that’s got to be impacting both his mind and his game. Morris and Smart know who they are, know their roles and are game ready. Both will fight hard to win and that’s what the Celtics need right now.

Integrating Hayward isn’t the only issue. The promise of last spring has created a bit of a hangover with some key contributors and they’re lagging performances are dragging this wildly talented team into mediocrity. Let’s start with Al Horford.

For the last two seasons, come spring and playoff time Big Al has stepped up. When the lights are the brightest he’s played better and that is an inspiring and likeable quality that he consistently shows… in the spring. Don’t get me wrong, I love it when players step up in big moments and that’s not Horford’s problem. His problem is not recognizing the big moments as they unfold during the regular season. Yes, sometimes to be a real leader and a consistent one, you have to step up in November and December or even when it’s coldest outside throughout the doldrums of January and February. It’s often said that the offense flows through Horford. He is the consistent rock around which everything functions. Well, things have been functioning at quite an average pace so far so the nickname “Average Al” right now seems very well suited. Shooting .667 from the free throw line seems lethargic to me and amidst this teams struggles, not acceptable either.

After Hayward went down on opening night of 2017, both Jaylen Brown and Jason Tatum burst onto the court, stole the moment and consistently led an undermanned and underrated team to heights that none of the so-called pundits ever expected. It was beautiful to watch and inspiring. Their superstar futures were blossoming before our very eyes and it left Celtics fans salivating for what was coming next.

Now 21 games into the following season I’m thinking that they both started to buy into their very much deserved press clippings. It certainly has not been a great follow up act for either budding superstar. It’s also not unforgiveable or uncorrectable, but it’s certainly ‘a thing.’ Something Stevens needs address and correct. At least with Tatum it appears that a conversation or two may have already happened as he has begun to ramp up his game and his aggressiveness. With Brown however the struggles for consistency are obvious and the swagger he displayed last year has been hard to spot. He’s a candidate to sit and watch a bit in my view while the fire from last season reignites.

This same situation also certainly applies to one Terry Rozier, whose electrifying play during the playoffs last season sparked his team and exhilarated a region of fans. Kuddos to that. The problem is he is not Tatum and he is not Brown and a massive dose of humility is in order in this case. The Celtics could never have made the postseason run they made without the high flying and high level of play that Rozier provided, but he needs to know that he is second fiddle to Kyrie Irving on this roster. Not only is Irving the superstar guard that tops that positional depth chart, he happens to be the one star player pulling his weight consistently night after night. So sorry ‘Scary Terry’ but you need to know your role, play it well and earn your time.

I believe in Brad Stevens and I believe in this team. I also believe in the players on this roster and their ability to get things corrected. However, the reality is that to date things haven’t worked. The team is underperforming and those corrections need to be made – right now. Maybe a couple of knocks to some collective egos will do the trick. You’ll know it when it happens. I’m thinking that the end of this brutally mediocre month (Friday is November 30th) would be a good time to start.

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