Kyrie Irving took the floor at TD Garden on Sunday night sporting a streak of five straight performances in which he’d scored at least 30 points. The first two helped Boston dispatch the dregs from Sacramento and Atlanta, but since then his Celtics had lost three in a row — leading Irving to take a different tact against the Spurs.
At home against San Antonio, he attempted only 17 shots, after shooting at least 23 times in each night of his scoring binge and averaging 25.4 field goal tries over that stretch. He finished with 12 assists, along with 11 points of his own — although better shot distribution didn’t translate to better fortune for the Celtics, who lost their fourth consecutive contest, 115-96, and failed to score in triple figures for the first time in almost a month.
Myriad problems appear to be piling up for a team that’s playing its way out of contention for home-court advantage in the opening round of the Eastern Conference playoffs, among them the lack of a reliable second option on the offensive end. It goes without saying that if the defensive effort and general intensity doesn’t come to life when the playoff lights are illuminated, the Celtics seeding won’t matter. But assuming Brad Stevens can coax enough buy-in to improve the attitude and energy, the bigger hindrance to Boston’s postseason may not be settling for No. 5 instead of No. 4 in the standings. It might be the absence of a steady No. 2 to handle the scoring.
Back in the fall, when Finals-or-bust was hardly cast as an absurd expectation for this team, the Celtics’ greatest strength was thought to be their depth. Based on talent, they figured to be a hard team to stop offensively, because if one upper-tier option was limited, there were multiple others capable of filling the void. Here in the spring, however, that faith has been eroded by the inconsistency that has left them to confront their current reality.
Irving, by most metrics, remains among the NBA’s top 10 offensive weapons. But beyond that, none of Boston’s options has played well enough or consistently enough to make a case that they can be relied upon to produce in the playoffs. Some of the advanced metrics put Al Horford on the cusp of the top 40, but when the numbers are presented in terms of per-minute or per-possession production, it’s into the 80s before Jayson Tatum appears as the next-ranked Celtic after Irving.
So, over the final eight games of the regular season, one priority for the Celtics is to overtake what’s now a two-game deficit to the fourth-seeded Pacers. That opportunity still exists, with Boston and Indiana facing off each of the next two Fridays.
Yet perhaps just as much a priority is going into the playoffs with a confident answer to the question: Who is the Celtics’ No. 2 option offensively? Here are how the possibilities present:
Who it should be: Jayson Tatum
Maybe the expectations placed on a second-year player who turned 21 just a few weeks ago were unrealistic, but even in less than two full seasons, Tatum has shown enough to think he can carry the load as Robin to Irving’s Batman. He can get to the basket. He can create his own shot. And last year he shot better than 43 percent from 3-point territory. He was expected to make a leap after his rookie campaign, but instead his shooting has regressed, and he’s scoring more at the rate of a journeyman than a former third-overall pick/future franchise cornerstone. In March, Tatum has hit 22 percent of his launches from the 3, and in points-per-possession he entered the week between the Raptors’ Jeremy Lin and the Wizards’ Thomas Bryant at No. 84 for the season. When teams key on Irving, the focal point of the Celtics’ attack should be Tatum — but, right now, that’s not a sufficient second option.
Who may not be an option: Al Horford
Injuries have cost him some time, including the past couple of contests, but Horford has enjoyed a solid season offensively. He’s shooting well, and with that his offensive rating is best among the Celtics’ rotation players. The team is 14-6 when he scores at least 16 points. The offense tends to function nicely when he makes himself a threat on the post — but the Pacers are a team that typically does a good job of mitigating such threats. Going into Monday, Indiana had allowed fewer points per game to centers than all but one NBA team, so challenging premier defender Myles Turner might not be the best way to attack Boston’s presumptive first-round foe.
Who it has been at times, but shouldn’t be: Marcus Morris
Over the first half of this season, Morris played his way into the Celtics’ starting lineup by shooting the lights out, and bringing the consistency that others had failed to foster in that role. The 29-year-old remains a starter, but since the start of February he’s shooting just 42.5 percent from the field, and less than 31 percent from deep. He’s still scoring at a decent clip, but that can be attributed to the volume of shot attempts he takes (still 12 per game since Feb. 1). When Morris gets hot he can carry a team for a run, for a quarter, maybe even for a game. But there are too many gaps to entrust him with being the No. 2 option for a full series.
Who it’s unrealistic to think it will be: Gordon Hayward
The only time Hayward has hit for at least 10 points in more than three consecutive games was in the first four games of 2019. He’s had three spans in which he went for double figures three outings in a row, the latest coming during the team’s California trip earlier this month, but since then he’s totaled 31 points on 25 shots and missed most of four games with a concussion. For the season he’s scored 10 or more 33 times, and failed to do so 32 times, and continues to look like a player settling into his role as a No. 5 or 6 more than a guy ready to seize his intended responsibility as No. 2.
Who may be the best option: Jaylen Brown
Brown’s offensive contributions during the current four-game slide have been enigmatic. He scored six points apiece in consecutive contests, including the game at Philadelphia where he took just three shots in 28-plus minutes. He followed that by scoring 29 points at Charlotte, on 10-of-13 shooting, but came back the next night with seven points when he hit just one of eight from the field against the Spurs. He struggled early to settle into a role that may have been different than the one he envisioned for himself, but he’s played well lately, and the Celtics have been a better team when Brown has been aggressive. They’re 14-16 when he shoots less than 10 times, compared to 24-15 when he shoots more, and per-minute he gets to the free-throw line more than anyone but Irving. Sunday’s game was a prime example of how things can unravel on the Celtics when they rely too heavily on jumpshots that aren’t falling In the playoffs against a team like the Pacers his ability and willingness to get to the basket could be big assets. He had 22 points last time against Indiana, and looking at the matchups beyond that he’s averaged 18 points against the Bucks this season. Brown isn’t the Celtics’ second-best offensive player, but come April it may make sense to treat him and trust him as such.