The Boston Celtics have jumped out in front of the up-and-coming Philadelphia 76ers, but their best hope to stay ahead is their Terry Rozier.
The Boston Celtics have had a very peculiar season. They started the year with what looked like a perfect cohesion of stars in their prime and young prospects coming into their own, but that dynamic changed very quickly. Losing Gordon Hayward immediately and Kyrie Irving more recently turned a 55-win team with championship hopes into a fundamentally sound one that lacked the high-end star power to compete for even a conference title. Or at least it appeared that way.
Alongside Boston’s lone remaining All-Star Al Horford, third-year man Terry Rozier led the Celtics to a 117-101 victory over the Philadelphia 76ers Monday night. With that victory, the Celtics not only jumped out to a 1-0 series lead but quietly rekindled some of those grander playoff aspirations that seemed lost without Hayward and Irving. Since entering the starting lineup, Rozier has become an emotional and offensive leader for the Celtics and given them renewed hope this postseason.
Rozier’s status as a cult hero may have been cemented over the past couple of weeks, but his start in Boston was far less ceremonious.
When GM Danny Ainge took Rozier 16th overall in the 2015 NBA draft, his selection was met with equal parts confusion and ridicule. The Celtics were already set at guard with Isaiah Thomas, Marcus Smart, and Avery Bradley, and Rozier wasn’t projected to have the high-end potential to unseat any of the three. A few mock drafts had him going in the late first round and most had him in the second, but Ainge took the gamble on him at 16. For a city that perpetually views its teams as just a move or two away from a title, they didn’t see Rozier as that missing piece.
Those feelings only intensified given Rozier’s rocky early career trajectory. He spent much of his rookie season jumping between the D-League and NBA, playing just 39 games for the main squad. Getting the time to grow and gain confidence against weaker competition in the D-League accelerated Rozier’s development, but it created a stigma that he wasn’t an NBA player.
Last season those feelings began to disappear as Rozier developed into a solid backup point guard. Head coach Brad Stevens helped Rozier by playing him almost exclusively alongside Thomas to help him ease into a larger offensive role. The reasoning behind that strategy became clear in the minutes Rozier was out there as the primary offensive guard, as he struggled and Boston’s offensive rating plummeted from 117.4 when he was with Thomas to 96.6 without him.
Rozier had his moments — most notably a double-double against the Sixers in March — but his path to a starting-caliber point guard seemed long. That’s why when reports would come out that Ainge was reluctant to include him in trades to bring back All-Star-caliber wings like Jimmy Butler and Paul George, Rozier became more known as a punchline than a point guard.
Coming into this season, expectations for Rozier hadn’t changed all that much. Hayward signing as a free agent helped silence the jokes, but Rozier’s role was expected to stay much the same with Irving replacing Thomas as the primary offensive focal point.
Very quickly, however, it was clear that Rozier was earning more playing time. This season he doubled his points per game and increased both his rebounding and assists. He also dramatically improved his perimeter shooting, increasing his 3P% to 38.0 percent, a monumental increase from his 22.2 percent as a rookie and 31.8 percent last season.
But Rozier’s biggest improvement hasn’t been a tangible skill, but rather his confidence. It makes sense that a rookie averaging 1.8 points per game might be a little gun shy on the floor, but over time Rozier has found his footing. Both his usage and 3PAr were career-highs this season, signaling he not only was accepting his larger role but using it to take (and make) more perimeter jumpers.
While Rozier was developing quickly all season, it took Irving’s season-ending surgery to see his full potential. As a starter over the final 15 regular season games, Rozier averaged 14.7 points, 5.0 assists, and 6.1 rebounds on 33 minutes a night. Going into the postseason it seemed reasonable to assume that a mediocre offense with Irving would struggle without him, but Rozier has eased those concerns. He’s averaging 19.0 points, 6.6 assists, and 4.8 rebounds per game and has led the Celtics in assists six times.
Against the Bucks in round one, Rozier spend nearly the entire seven games going back and forth with Eric “Drew” Bledsoe both on and off the court.
Bledsoe’s assertion that he hadn’t heard of Rozier was ridiculous the moment he said it. While the Celtics had their ups and downs over the course of the series, Rozier was consistently outstanding and was outplaying Bledsoe on both sides of the ball. It’s possible Rozier crossing Bledsoe into oblivion in Game 1 caused his short-term memory loss, but I doubt Bledsoe will forget Rozier finishing off the Bucks in Game 7 with 26 points and nine assists.
Even with the talent disparity in Milwaukee’s favor, Boston’s strategic advantages pushed them over the top. But after taking all seven games to do so, Boston entered the Philadelphia series as consensus underdogs.
Joel Embiid and Ben Simmons taking on LeBron James’ last stand in Cleveland was too tantalizing a premise for most to pass up, so many assumed (or hoped) that Philadelphia would roll over Boston on their way to Cleveland. That matchup still may happen, but Rozier put a significant hurdle in Philly’s path.
Boston was superior in all phases of the game Monday night, but Rozier was the star of the show. He had 29 points, six assists, and eight rebounds while hitting seven of nine three-point attempts. Even with Robert Covington guarding him most of the game, Rozier dominated the league’s third-best regular season defense.
While he was fantastic in Game 1, there are a couple areas Rozier needs to improve to ensure Boston maintains the edge in the series. When Boston ran into dry spells against the Bucks in Round 1, Rozier often struggled to get the offense going and get other players involved. When the Celtics travel to Philadelphia later in the series, Rozier is going to have to do a better job at more consistently getting the entire offense involved than he did against Milwaukee.
The other, more important area of improvement Rozier needs to make is home/road splits. So far in the playoffs, Rozier has looked like two different players in Boston and in Milwaukee.
Terry Rozier’s Playoff Home/Road Splits (GmSc explained)
Role players often play better at home during the playoffs and given his expected role coming into the season, it’s understandable Rozier falls into those same extremes. He’s an emotional player who feeds off the crowd’s energy, but his next step is to reach those same heights no matter which arena he’s playing in.
As the series continues, home-court advantage will play a huge role in which team advances. Much like Rozier, the Sixers are a young, emotional team who will feed off their home crowd and play better in Games 3 and 4 (and probably 6). For Boston to continue their success they are going to need Rozier to be as good as he was on Monday the rest of the series, no matter who or what he’s up against.
Edited by Emily Berman.
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