Strength, or a weak­ness?

Celtics have one of the deep­est teams, but it’s not easy to jug­gle all that tal­ent and play­ing time.


BOS­TON — Kyrie Irv­ing stood with his back against a wall in a rel­a­tively small Bos­ton Celtics locker room, the stalls of his team­mates all fac­ing him.

If he had fo­cused his gaze, he would’ve seen where five-time All-Star Al Hor­ford gets ready for games. Across from Hor­ford is one-time All-Star Gor­don Hay­ward’s locker. Be­tween them are spa­ces for No. 3 picks Jayson Ta­tum and Jaylen Brown, for vet­eran Mar­cus Mor­ris, for No. 6 pick Mar­cus Smart and for first-rounder Terry Rozier.

Along with Irv­ing, it’s a group of eight play­ers deep enough to match up with any team in the NBA, a group with ath­leti­cism, length, skill, youth and ex­pe­ri­ence.

“It’s a sit­u­a­tion where ev­ery­one is not go­ing to be happy with their role,” Brown told The Times after his team lost to the Lak­ers at the buzzer Thurs­day. “But sac­ri­fice is nec­es­sary.”

As Irv­ing was sur­rounded by the me­dia, he down­played the no­tion that clar­ity, rou­tine and de­fined roles for play­ers such as Brown, Hay­ward, Mor­ris, Smart and Rozier mat­tered much.

“I’ve fig­ured out dur­ing the sea­son that’s a lit­tle overrated, hav­ing the coaches de­fine roles. I re­ally do be­lieve that,” Irv­ing said. “As bas­ket­ball play­ers, there’s no role a coach is go­ing to give you that you’re truly go­ing to be com­fort­able with un­less you get ev­ery shot. It’s the truth of it.”

Maybe Irv­ing is right. Or maybe from where Irv­ing is stand­ing as the team leader in shots, min­utes, scor­ing and us­age rate, it’s eas­ier to dis­miss the no­tion that clar­ity for a player is overrated.

It’s an in­ter­est­ing time for Irv­ing and the Celtics. He can be­come a free agent after the sea­son if he de­clines the player op­tion on his con­tract, some­thing he’ll al­most cer­tainly do. The best chance for Bos­ton to keep Irv­ing might be an off­sea­son trade for An­thony Davis.

The Celtics could turn some of their tal­ent — Ta­tum, Brown, Rozier or oth­ers — and healthy stash of draft picks into the 6-foot-10 su­per­star. They’ve long been ru­mored to covet Davis.

But for now, they’ve got to deal with their num­bers and fig­ure out how to max­i­mize ev­ery­one’s min­utes. They’ve been on the right track.

Be­fore back-to-back home losses to the L.A. teams, coach Brad Stevens’ Celtics had won 10 of 11 games — the only de­feat com­ing by four points at home against the Golden State War­riors. There was op­ti­mism that maybe the team turned a cor­ner from an un­even first quar­ter of the sea­son.

After 20 games, the Celtics were 10-10, a dis­ap­point­ing start for one of the fa­vorites in the Eastern Con­fer­ence. Since then, Bos­ton had won 25 of 34, putting to­gether an eight-game win­ning streak and two five-game streaks.

For Stevens, part of the suc­cess was fig­ur­ing out the recipe for his top eight play­ers — who would play, how much, and who would play to­gether. He knew his team, which reached the con­fer­ence fi­nals last sea­son, would need to fig­ure out how to in­te­grate Hay­ward, who missed the whole sea­son, and Irv­ing, who missed the play­offs, to the young group that car­ried the post­sea­son.

Stevens be­lieves defin­ing roles is “re­ally im­por­tant.”

“We had to take time to see who would fit best to­gether. And that would ul­ti­mately im­pact some of the in­di­vid­ual roles,” Stevens said. “I think our guys have done a pretty good job, whether we’ve been fully healthy or not, the last cou­ple of months, play­ing those [roles] to the best of their abil­i­ties.

“It’s not easy go­ing from be­ing a starter, like Terry and Jaylen were in the play­offs, to not. It’s not easy to be a starter and an All-Star the last time he played, like Gor­don was, and not be in the start­ing lineup. But ul­ti­mately, that’s what’s best for all of us.”

Stevens has asked more from Hay­ward than maybe any­one else — by ask­ing him to do a lot less.

After sign­ing a four-year, $128-mil­lion deal in 2017, Hay­ward sus­tained a hor­rific leg in­jury five min­utes into the Celtics’ sea­son opener. When he re­turned, it was like wak­ing up from a coma and en­ter­ing a world that was new and un­fa­mil­iar. While Hay­ward was out, Ta­tum de­vel­oped into one the most promis­ing young wings in the NBA. Brown and Rozier had big­ger roles in the post­sea­son and were as­cend­ing too.

“It’s def­i­nitely a men­tal ad­just­ment,” Hay­ward told The Times of com­ing off the bench. “… Com­ing from Utah to here, I was ex­pect­ing to maybe do some dif­fer­ent things. Then get­ting in­jured and work­ing through that as well as other guys de­vel­op­ing — this team doesn’t need me to score to be suc­cess­ful. They need me to make win­ning plays.”

Hay­ward has taken six or fewer shots 13 times in 51 games this sea­son. In his last four sea­sons in Utah, he took six or fewer shots only four times in 317 games. He’s started only once since mov­ing to the bench in mid-Novem­ber.

Hay­ward is quick to point out that he never was a score­first player, but he’s also prob­a­bly never played on a team that’s asked him to score so in­fre­quently.

“It’s def­i­nitely been an ad­just­ment,” he said. “Win­ning plays are get­ting re­bounds, box­ing out, cut­ting through the lane to open up a cor­ner three for some­one else. It’s dif­fer­ent things. And, some nights, the scor­ing is there. I just try to fo­cus on try­ing to help us win in­stead of look­ing at box scores.”

His re­bound­ing is as ef­fec­tive as ever and he’s still a good play­maker. Brown, Rozier and Smart also are ad­just­ing — all three are play­ing and scor­ing less than a year ago.

Brown said bet­ter com­mu­ni­ca­tion and clearer roles might help. Ath­letes have rou­tines and ap­pre­ci­ate clar­ity. But it’s also not re­al­is­tic, not with the Celtics need­ing all of their tal­ent to sur­vive the East and make a run at the NBA Fi­nals.

“Those things are very im­por­tant,” Brown said of clar­ity and rou­tine. “We can do bet­ter in those as­pects. But at that end of the day, we’re all men. We’re all do­ing a job and we’ve all got one goal.”

And, sac­ri­fice is nec­es­sary.

Michael Dwyer Associated Press

KYRIE IRV­ING thinks the idea of de­fined roles for play­ers is “a lit­tle overrated,” but his coach calls it “re­ally im­por­tant.”

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