Tomase: 5 biggest disappointments on Celtics include 2 of their supposed rocks

John Tomase
November 26, 2018 - 11:56 am

USA Today Sports

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The list of Celtics who have met or exceeded expectations this season is depressingly short: Kyrie Irving, Marcus Smart, Marcus Morris.

The list of Celtics who have failed to do so is depressingly long: everybody else.

That said, some disappointments are more disappointing than others. And after a listless 10-10 start that has presented the first true test of Brad Stevens’ heretofore rock-star tenure, some slices of blame pie require a larger plate than others.

With that in mind, here are the five biggest disappointments of a Celtics season that we all keep expecting will right itself, even as the team’s flaws – horrible 3-point shooting, lackluster defensive intensity, the inability to stop anyone shorter than 6-foot-5 – reappear on a nightly basis.

5. Gordon Hayward

It doesn’t feel right to put Hayward on this list after everything he has endured over the last year, but pro sports are a bottom-line business and the bottom line is Hayward hasn’t delivered – at least not yet.

Stevens finally removed him from the starting lineup last week and Hayward saw some improved production with the second unit, particularly during a 19-point, seven-rebound loss to the Knicks.

 But as he recovers from last year’s horrific broken ankle, it’s clear that Hayward’s return to form could take all season, if it happens this year at all.

“Ultimately I just have so much more that I can give to the team,” Hayward said after the Knicks game. “It’s still not all the way there yet, so it’s frustrating seeing shots go in and out or watching film and seeing how I can be more aggressive or different things like that.”

Hayward’s shooting numbers are down across the board (save for a career-best .850 from the free throw line), but particularly from 3-point territory (.286), even though many of his looks qualify as wide open.

But forget the numbers for a moment. Pre-injury, Hayward played above the rim. Now he looks most comfortable on land, curtailing drives to the hoop in order to kick the ball out for 3’s. The old Hayward could finish with authority. He may yet do so again, but he’s not there yet.

4. Terry Rozier

Scary Terry is living up to his (copyright-infringed?) nickname, but for all the wrong reasons.

Before emerging as a shot-making point guard who never turned the ball over last postseason, Rozier was a wildly inconsistent bench player with shooting numbers that rivaled Smart’s for sheer ugliness.

Then came the playoffs and the birth of a top-100 player and questions over how Rozier would handle a return to the bench. We now have an answer: not well. Rozier averaged 14 shots a night in the playoffs when the Celtics had about seven healthy players, and he’s struggling with reduced touches since.

One of the biggest problems with the Celtics offense is a decrease in the move-it-to-whoever’s-open approach that has made them so fun to watch in favor of an I’ve-got-to-get-mine selfishness embodied by pretty much every mid-range jumper in Rozier’s arsenal.

He’s shooting just 36 percent from the field, he’s tweeting cryptically off the court, and he feels like a prime candidate to be moved to ease the lack of shots for everyone else.

It’s too bad, because the Celtics were counting on Rozier’s production as a starter translating to the bench.

3. Jaylen Brown

There was a time when the question of whether Brown could be included in an Anthony Davis trade package elicited genuine debate (ugh). The 6-foot-7 guard possessed the athleticism to defend pretty much anyone, as well as score in the open court, and a developing 3-point stroke suggested a higher ceiling than many of us thought possible even after the Celtics selected him third overall in 2016.

Welcome to the junior slump.

Of all the players impacted by Hayward’s return, Brown appears most flummoxed. After making nearly 40 percent of his 3-pointers last year, he’s at 25 percent now. But more than just misfiring, he looks lost and uncertain.

Never a great ball-handler or decision-maker, he’s trying to do too much off the dribble, rather than attacking in the flow of the game. He’s also the poster child for believing the hype before it is earned, with his regrettable comments about winning five titles by age 27, etc. . . .

The dangers signs have always been there, from the disappearing act in Game 7 of the Conference Finals to a steadily declining free throw percentage that often correlates to poor shooting overall. Brown needs to recognize that it’s OK to be a role player, not a star. More than anyone else, he appears to be wilting under the pressure of self-imposed expectations.

There’s a prominent role for him on a championship team, but only when he accepts he’s a cog, not a wheel.

2. Al Horford

Man, what we wouldn’t give for Average Al right now.

Hayward’s struggles, Brown’s inconsistencies, and Rozier’s disappearing act have swung the spotlight away from Horford, but he deserves the glare.

When Irving noted that the Celtics needed a 15-year veteran to stabilize the locker room, many took it as a swipe at Horford. While that wasn’t Irving’s intent, it’s actually a fair criticism, because this young, underachieving team craves steadiness and guidance, and Horford isn’t providing either.

A year ago, the Celtics averaged nearly eight more points per 100 possessions with Horford on the floor. Now they’re barely even. He looks sluggish on both ends, and like pretty much everyone else on the team, he can’t make a 3 to save his life, his percentage down over 100 points to .324. His struggles at center prompted the return of Aron Baynes to the starting lineup.

Horford has always been a beyond-the-box-score kind of contributor, which propelled the Average Al debate. But he was the best player on the floor for large chunks of the postseason, and he’s on a max contract for a reason.

The Celtics need him to play like an All-Star. When he’s right, the system works largely on his example: Horford plays unselfishly on both ends, ensuring the ball moves on offense and teammates do on defense.

When he’s off – and at times this year, he has looked like post-concussion Horford – there’s no glue. The Celtics need their glue back.

1. Brad Stevens

The coach who had done no wrong for five years finds himself facing a new challenge: how to motivate a favorite and not an underdog. Even when the Celtics were earning No. 1 overall seeds and reaching the conference finals, they were never once considered the class of the East, not with LeBron James in Cleveland.

Now they’re carrying the weight of legitimate expectations, and they’re buckling. Much of this deserves to fall on Stevens.

Outside of missing wide-open shots – an affliction that has curiously plagued Stevens’ teams dating back to Butler – a good percentage of the team’s struggles could be addressed on the coaching end.

The Celtics take too many bad shots. They don’t share the ball because they’re often offensively stagnant. The starting lineup was one of the least-efficient in the league before Stevens pulled the plug. Young players have regressed. The defense has allowed no-names like New York’s Trey Burke to explode for 29 points. The relentlessness and selflessness that typified prior Stevens teams has evaporated.

Stevens speaks of playing connected basketball, a trait you know when you see. The Celtics appear disconnected, and it’s up to the coach who thus far has had all the answers to fix it.

His track record strongly suggests he’ll succeed. But until he does, consider him the biggest disappointment in a season unfolding in shockingly mediocre fashion.

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