It’s time for Brad Stevens to start making changes.
After a mediocre start to the season punctuated by a 1-4 road trip that ended with a loss in Portland on Sunday, the Celtics (7-6) are on the verge of becoming a .500 team.
Their formula — fall behind by double digits and then crawl back – is not sustainable. Stevens needs to adjust his starting lineup to prevent massive first-half deficits while also strengthening his bench.
Here’s where he should start: bench Gordon Hayward and make Marcus Smart a starter.
Boston trailed by at least 16 points at halftime in three out of five games on the trip. The only game they won, at Phoenix, saw them overcome a 20-point deficit.
It’s time to shake things up, and it starts on the defensive end of the floor. Adding Smart to the backcourt is step one.
Opposing guards have been a thorn in the Celtics’ side of late. Scorers like Jamal Murray (48 points), Devin Booker (38 points) and Victor Oladipo (24 points) have had their way against Kyrie Irving and Jaylen Brown. Bringing Smart into the fold will turn things around and sending Hayward to the bench while switching Brown to the small forward position will open up opportunities on both ends of the floor.
Hayward will thrive off of facing opposing team’s secondary defenders, giving the reserves an edge. Terry Rozier’s offense has been very streaky this season, and Smart’s scoring (5.4 ppg) has been almost non-existent.
You can say something similar about Hayward’s production. He averaged eight points on the five-game road trip and shot 34.1 percent from the floor in 26.8 minutes per game.
Marcus Morris has provided the only consistent scoring punch off the bench. The simple defense-for-offense switch between Hayward and Smart will protect the Celtics from surrendering so many points while opening up scoring opportunities for both Hayward and Rozier.
The two scorers are very effective when they’re on the floor together. Hayward’s playmaking abilities allow him to find Rozier via backdoor cuts and in transition, while Hayward’s outside touch makes him a threat against opposing defenses that are forced to cover him, thus opening the floor for a slashing Rozier, who can create off the dribble.
They would feed off each other nicely. Hayward could also play off the ball and develop in pick-and-roll sets with Aron Baynes, while Smart secures opposing backcourts and wouldn’t have to worry as much about wanting to score.
Smart, who expressed his frustration with his team’s defense or lack thereof, says he isn’t seeing the kind of effort on the defensive end that Stevens commands from his guys and told reporters after their loss against the Jazz that the Celtics are simply letting opponents feel comfortable. Meanwhile, Stevens is putting the blame on himself, which he made clear following the Portland loss when he was asked how the Blazers managed to lead the Celtics for all 48 minutes.
“Just thoroughly outplayed,” Stevens said. “I don’t know what else to say. When we’re desperate and urgent, we’re pretty good. We’ve got to do a better job and I’ve got to do a better job of making sure that we start games that way.”
Stevens even went as far as to say that he’s not guiding his team towards the right direction.
“You find your flow by making the next right play and playing hard, that’s it,” Stevens said. “When you’re in the game, you have a job to do on that possession, you do it. Then if you do it really well over and over again, you have a good team. We’re not there yet and so that, to me, is well-coached teams get there. We’re not a well-coached team right now, that’s pretty obvious.”
The best place for Stevens to start is by tweaking his starting lineup. Insert Smart and bench Hayward before things get worse. The Celtics are already five games behind the first-place Raptors — whom they will face Friday night at TD Garden — and are currently tied for fifth place in the Eastern Conference.
It’s time for Stevens to hold his players accountable. He’s already accepted the blame for the slow start — it’s now time to take action.