Heading into the postseason, the Boston Celtics prospects were terrifying. After riding comeback victories, developing young players, and the All-Star pairing of Kyrie Irving and Al Horford to 55 wins despite losing Gordon Hayward, the Celtics entered the playoffs battered and bruised.
Irving remains done for the year, joining Hayward on the shelf. Marcus Smart, Irving’s key backup, started the first round against the Milwaukee Bucks on the injured list.
Then Scary Terry Rozier emerged.
After limping through a seven-game series against a poorly coached Bucks, winning every game at home behind the raucous TD Garden crowd, the Celtics were branded underdogs against the Philadelphia 76ers and their burgeoning superstars Joel Embiid and Ben Simmons.
And then Terry kept on going.
It’s been an unbelievable run for Terry Rozier this postseason, transforming from Danny Ainge internet punchline to one of the hottest players in the game. Now that Boston, who are 6-0 at home and 0-3 on the road during the playoffs, hold a lead over the Sixers, Rozier’s isn’t just a playoff darling and feel-good story. He’s the engine driving the Celts through this postseason and, as they take steps closer towards the Eastern Conference Finals, their short-term franchise hopes increasingly lie on his broad shoulders.
But improvement from a role player on a rookie contract is always a double-edged sword. Rozier’s value may soon be too great for him to fall in line as a backup to Kyrie Irving. Add Gordon Hayward next year and there’ll be a minutes squeeze in Boston’s back court, regardless of Marcus Smart’s free agency decisions this summer. While this is a good problem for Boston to have, it will force some difficult choices. The more the Celtics win, the harder they become.
Rozier’s progression this postseason in expanded minutes shouldn’t be completely surprising. He averaged 21.7 points per 100 possessions, an offensive rating of 109, and 38 percent shooting from three. The shot selection has improved with his three-point shooting efficiency. This past year he took more than half his shots from downtown, as opposed to 25 during his rookie season. That’s as large of a change in shooting profile in just two years as I’ve seen.
Still, he’s playing even better than anyone could have predicted. Averages of 19.1 points per game, shooting 44 percent from three and a nearly 5:1 assist to turnover ratio have parlayed Rozier into one of the top story lines of this entire postseason. He leads all players in three-pointers made in hte playoffs so far. His shooting comes in myriad of ways: off the bounce when opponents go under his screens, on kickouts from Boston’s slew of playmakers, or in transition when out-hustling his counterparts.
It’s the footwork he exhibits in any of these shooting scenarios that makes me think Rozier will be successful beyond this postseason run. His training in transition is evident with how he firmly plants his feet to stop momentum at full speed, the hallmark of changing from a complete sprint to a controlled rise for a jumper:
The lower body is where the onus of the shot mechanics come in, but he’s got a pure release and an ever-consistent follow through. The consistency of his footwork extends to when he goes both to his right and his left, and is at its best when he pulls up to backing-down opponents. He uses a one-two step instead of a hop step, which takes a little longer to establish but provides more balance and consistency with launch strength:
Defenders routinely find themselves backpedaling when Rozier gains a head of steam going towards the rim, respecting his supreme athleticism. Terry Rozier, as with many other of the wings and ball handlers on the Celtics, is efficient in getting downhill after a simple move and attacking the rim; no doubt part of what the Celtics’ coaching staff preaches. What makes Scary Terry so scary: he’s so tight with his bounce defenders have little success in taking a super aggressive approach and applying pressure.
Milwaukee tried that aggressive scheme, almost denying him the ball on the perimeter at times, and Rozier found ways to fend them off. Part of that is a product of the system Brad Stevens uses, where the ball is routinely in the middle-third of the floor while cutting and screening takes place on the wings.
A byproduct of Stevens’ brilliance is we struggle to fully evaluate players within his system. The “next man up” mentality he preaches certainly lends itself to crediting the players for their approach and performance, though Stevens deserves a lot of praise. Perhaps that’s why guys like Evan Turner, Isaiah Thomas, Jared Sullinger and others have flamed out elsewhere while the Stevens system thrives year after year.
Against a team that applies perimeter pressure and rarely switches, like Milwaukee, the Stevens offense looked all the more effective. Horford would routinely take the ball atop the key within the flow of offense while two teammates converge on the wings. The one closest to the ball either screens down for the corner or cuts through to the opposite wing, creating open shot after open shot for Boston:
The other part of Rozier’s success against pressure his is strong physique and rugged frame, which allows him to absorb contact and still get to his spots. This is a prized attribute in the playoffs, when whistles are swallowed routinely and this type of physicality is valued. Few players can finish both over length and through contact the way Rozier does:
Of course, as a point guard Rozier is valuable in ways other than scoring. Rozier’s turnover-averse nature helps him assume the role of a trusted creator within an offense. Terry’s turnover rate has dipped each year he’s been in the league and finished at a fantastic 8.5 percent this season. Five of the nine games he’s played in this postseason have seen him dish out eight or more assists.
As a pick-and-roll playmaker, Rozier gets north-south towards the rim and applies pressure on the backline of the defense. But he’s incredibly adept at making timely passes and not over-dribbling, a serial symptom of young players in the league. Knowing when the window for distributing is open – between beating the primary defender and running into the secondary line – is a skill that shows great maturity, and one Rozier has conquered in the league already.
Just look at the timing and accuracy of this pass on the move:
Time will tell if Scary Terry can remain terrifying throughout the rest of the playoffs, however long that lasts. One thing is clear though: when he’s at his hottest, he’s nearly nuclear, which is something teams around the league would love to be able to harness.
The fears are Rozier will underwhelm if given a full-time role and that he’s playing far above his head this postseason. Comparisons to Reggie Jackson, who was the scoring-minded backup to Russell Westbrook in Oklahoma City, come to mind as a worst-case scenario. Jackson signed a five-year, $80 million deal back in 2015 after less than a third of a season as the Detroit Pistons’ starting point guard. Jackson has underwhelmed with the Pistons, scoring the ball at a fine level but failing to orchestrate the offense for his teammates and make a dependably positive impact on defense.
Those Pistons gave up D.J. Augustin, Kyle Singler and two second-round picks in order to secure Jackson at the trade deadline, a far lower price than the Celtics will seek for Rozier if he’s shopped. Any team acquiring Rozier would have to pay for the top value he’s proven during this run, adding a higher degree of risk than most deals. Add onto that the fact he’ll be a free agent during the summer of 2019, when many teams will be clearing cap space and a cap spike is somewhat expected, and everything surrounding Scary Terry is very costly.
Of course, the upside is landing a player who might blossom into a franchise player, like the Washington Wizards did with Gilbert Arenas before injuries and other issues derailed his stardom.
The Celtics would need to cash out with that stock this summer to garner the most value for Terry. Next summer will be too late for them to get any return on Rozier, who almost certainly will command a value on the free market too high for the team to match based on their salary situation. And waiting until the trade deadline to deal him risks Rozier’s value diminishing if he serves as a backup behind Irving through the beginning of next season, espeically if his scoring aura wears off over the next eight months.
Rozier is an upgrade over Kyrie Irving on the defensive end – almost by default – but certainly has the potential to be a Reggie Jackson type of disappointment on that end. Players who expend a great deal of energy on the offensive end tend to have difficulty harnessing enough gusto to compete on defense. If Rozier falls into that territory outside of Boston’s system – likely if the offense is constructed around his playmaking ability – the Jackson-Rozier comparisons could grow.
Still, watching Rozier this postseason has been eye-opening as he’s displayed an electric scoring ability. He may not be in Boston much longer but he’s the savior of their season at this moment. And while his sheer value and consistency are up for debate, we should all sit back and watch him bask in the moments he creates. Because none of us… except for Danny Ainge… saw this coming.
Unless otherwise noted, all stats are courtesy of basketball-reference, NBA.com or Synergy Sports Tech and are current as of May 4, 2018.