Boston Celtics

Is time running out for Terry Rozier?

After a demoralizing loss in Orlando last week, the mood was predictably heavy in the Boston Celtics locker room. Players hunched over their leather seats, blankly staring forward as their thoughts remained on the missed opportunity from just minutes before. Terry Rozier sat numbly in his stall, finally on the same page as his teammates. He had gone scoreless in 17 minutes that night, missing each of his five shot attempts. Boston would lose by just two points. He went through the motions of rubbing lotion on his hands, then began the process of adjusting rings, bracelets, and chains, all without saying a single word.

The Magic is a team many observers would say is notably lacking at the point guard position. It was a matchup that Rozier should have found a way to thrive against, just as he had during Boston’s unexpected playoff run last season. When asked what happened that night, Rozier made his way slowly out of the dazed chamber of his thoughts, looked up from his gleaming jewelry and mumbled, “I don’t even want to talk ‘bout it. For real.”

He was moving mechanically now, locked on automatic pilot as he hurried to escape the tension bottled up in that steam-filled locker. Rozier zipped up a jacket, grabbed his few belongings, pulled a hood over his low-hanging head, and walked away, the only evidence that he was ever there — either on the court or off of it — a bottle of hot sauce left behind in his stall. Rozier was surely upset, but whether it was the loss or his own miserable performance that bothered him more is impossible to say.

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Earlier that morning, he had been upbeat. Just two days before, he was absolutely ecstatic, having been bestowed a gift that few other others had received this season; a jersey from Miami’s Dwyane Wade. Rozier has long idolized Wade, forming a relationship since the former joined the league in 2016. As Wade enjoys each step of his final season before beginning a new journey into retirement, he occasionally exchanges jerseys with players from opposing teams after games. Rozier, following a 16-point loss in which he’d played another unproductive 17 minutes (4 points on 1-of-8 shooting), was the chosen one on that night, standing next to his favorite player and grinning widely.

He’d been politicking for the jersey exchange since the offseason, making his case via text. “[Wade] sent me a good luck message before the season,” said Rozier during shootaround in Orlando, “and I tol’ him, ‘On this day, I need that jersey.’”

Rozier had begun appreciating Wade “since he first started liking basketball.” Growing up in Shaker Heights, a suburb of Cleveland, Wade’s combination of speed and tenacity immediately appealed to Rozier. “Yeah, where I’m from,” he says just hours before his disappointing performance against the Magic, “the toughness in his game, the quickness…it’s just something that I always compared myself to.”

The comparison might have had very little merit on that particular day but whatever qualities the Celtics guard might be lacking, confidence isn’t one of them. He wasn’t much of a factor during his rookie season, alternating between the Celtics and the Maine Red Claws of the-then NBA D-League to earn whatever scant minutes he could. In his second year in the NBA, he played 74 games on the bench, showing just enough skill to make him a potential building block for the future, as well as a punchline around the country when it was rumored that Rozier, far from a household name, hadn’t been included in a trade package to acquire a fully-developed superstar. When the Celtics acquired Kyrie Irving right before the 2017-18 season, Rozier dropped further down the depth chart. But when Irving went down with an injury at the end of last season, it was Rozier who stepped up to help prolong Boston’s postseason, averaging 16.5 points, 5.3 rebounds and 5.7 assists in the 19 games he started, helping cement the legend of “Scary Terry.” Confidence was the only constant.

Photo by Brian Babineau/NBAE via Getty Images

But this year has been different and Rozier’s part in it has been far from satisfying. Irving has returned to health and quickly re-established himself as the team’s foundation. What was once considered the team’s greatest strength — its depth — has given head coach Brad Stevens more ingredients than he knows how to incorporate. Players like Gordon Hayward, Jaylen Brown, Marcus Smart and Rozier, himself, have rotated in and out of lineups. And the mounting pressure of being a favorite in the Eastern Conference has finally started to boil over.

To his credit, Rozier hasn’t complained, at least not publicly, about his role this season even as he has clearly struggled to find his place. But therein lies the issue for Rozier, one compounded after his postseason surge. He knew this was Irving’s team and would stay so once the latter returned from injury. He knew that on a team this deep, everyone would need touches and Rozier, despite his strong postseason, still has to prove that he excels in any one thing. He’s not a scorer like Irving or Jayson Tatum, not a relentless defender like Marcus Smart, nor as versatile as Hayward and Brown. Rozier knew all this and yet there’s the overwhelming sense as he prepares to enter restricted free agency later this summer that he feels something, should have been different.

When asked if juggling players in and out of rotations might be a challenge for his players, Stevens didn’t seem to think so. “Not a lot, lately. After the first 20 games, we made some changes to our starting lineup but guys have been pretty good about it. We’re 21 games past that, though, so it’s been…it can be a challenge, at first, but then it’s like anything else. When you get your opportunity to play, how do you find your areas to soar with what you do best while still adding value to winning?”

Brown was a bright spot last season and has himself been relegated to a role as a reserve. When asked if he felt that there should be a different attitude to being a starter or coming off the bench, he also didn’t see an issue. “To me, it’s the same mindset,” he said. “Try to bring energy. Try to execute the game plan. Just try to do your job.” But there have to be adjustments, right? “Yeah, I mean, you’re always going to have to adjust to different teams you play, different matchups, different lineups when people get hurt. But in terms of mindset, it’s the same energy, the same effort when running the game plan. Everyone is different but one of my favorite players growing up, Lou-Will [Clippers’ guard Lou Williams], he’s come off the bench his whole career and his rhythm doesn’t seem to be affected at all.”

By contrast, Rozier admits that it’s been a difficult transition. “Mainly, I just know the ball’s gonna be in my hands a whole lot more when I’m startin’. Coming off the bench, time is limited, of course,” he says. “It’s a lot to deal with. A lot of the guys that I’m playing with wanna be aggressive, too. I’m just trying, y’know, to still find ways so I can put guys in their best position and in my best position to be successful for this team.”

But Rozier sees himself as a scorer and playmaker and finding that balance this season has been difficult. “There are a lot of guys in this league that are true backup point guards,” adds Rozier. The phrase, in context of his role in Boston this year, is used almost derogatorily, as if the designation has inherent limitations that Rozier believes he does not. A “backup point guard” is just a distributor and a facilitator, content with that limited role.

And, despite a small sample size, Rozier’s numbers as a starter reflect that he might be capable of more. In four games he started in Irving’s absence earlier this season, Rozier shot significantly better (48.7 percent on all field-goal attempts, 41.7 from 3-point range) than he did coming off the bench (36.9 and 34.5 percent). When told about the differential, Rozier didn’t seem surprised. “I don’t even know how to answer that,” ignoring that no question had really been asked. But the problem with confidence is that it can add the fuel you need or it can simply burn it all down. “Maybe I’m a starter, then, huh?

Photo by Matteo Marchi/Getty Images

Against the Magic, the Celtics would wobble back and forth all night, building a lead, letting it go, and then fighting to reclaim it. Tatum missed a game-tying attempt at the buzzer. And Irving would make headlines as video showed him yelling at Stevens in the huddle beforehand, then at Hayward after the failed shot attempt and later, after most of his teammates had already left the locker room, giving a thorough summary of Boston’s problems this season.

“We can’t gamble and think it’s going to be the winning play. You gotta be able to play through the whole 48 minutes no matter what’s going on. And hold your head high when you make mistakes. When your job is called upon, you gotta do it to the best of your ability. You gotta come in and make an impact in the minutes that you playing out there. You gotta appreciate being out there and just competing.”

There was more, on his teammates’ lacking experience and the perspective of knowing what it takes to be a “championship ball club.” And while the comments weren’t directed at any one player, many of them seemed to parallel the highs and lows of Rozier’s postseason performance and subsequent struggles. “We had nothing to lose [last season] and everybody could play free and do whatever they wanted and nobody had any expectations. We were supposed to be at a certain point, we surpassed that. Young guys were supposed to be at a certain point, they surpassed that. We come into this season, expectations, and it’s real. Everyone from the coaching staff to the players, it’s very much real every single day, so that’s new. It’s tough.”

After losing two straight games on the road, Boston would travel to Brooklyn to complete their recent road trip. Irving and Smart sat out the game and Rozier got the starting nod, the chance he had been waiting for. He responded with another lackluster performance, playing 25 minutes and shooting just 3-of-12 from the field, contributing five assists as well as three turnovers.

During that shootaround in Orlando, I asked Rozier if he felt the need to put on a particularly strong performance, knowing the Magic front office has reportedly shown interest in acquiring him to fill their void at point guard. He responded, defiantly and clearly, that he felt no pressure at all, then spun away to practice shots that he wouldn’t be able to make later that night.

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Rozier has overcome much to get to this point. A difficult childhood filled with inner city violence and missing the father for which he was named due to long stints of incarceration. His journey to the NBA is an unlikely one. And even as toiled with the Red Claws or competed for minutes on a roster overflowing with talent, it was also trending upward after his strong showing in the playoffs.

And yet I can’t help but remember an image from that loss to the Magic. As Stevens led the team’s huddle, he was surrounded by players that he entrusted to help salvage that game. Behind them stood Rozier, looking over the shoulders of his teammates as the final play was drawn up, one which he likely feels he should have been a part of. He has wanted these moments to shine, to show the world that “Scary Terry” wasn’t just a phase. He believes all he needs is time and his belief has carried him far. But as he squanders these moments, the reality shows that he simply may not be ready. Time has begun to work against him and he might be running out of opportunities to prove otherwise.

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