Decisions are going to get tough for Joe Mazzulla in the coming weeks and months when it comes to determining what Celtics players will see regular minutes in his healthy rotation. Sam Hauser’s effort over the past two weeks isn’t going to make things any easier on that front for the Boston head coach.
Outside of Danilo Gallinari, the Celtics had their full complement of players available for the first time in months out of the All-Star Break in an overtime victory over the Pacers on Thursday night. Despite the added manpower, Jayson Tatum, Jaylen Brown, Marcus Smart and Al Horford all played their usual big minutes, meaning a very meager amount to go around the second unit.
Malcolm Brogdon (24 points in 37 minutes) was front and center in a sixth-man role against his former teammates and Derrick White (24 minutes) got his usual chunk of time. After that? There were only 24 minutes to go around to the bench unit even in an overtime game.
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Hauser managed to stick out from the crowd on Thursday night, playing his way into half of those minutes with eight points on a perfect 3-of-3 shooting to go along with a career-high three blocks. Hauser entered the contest with just 14 total blocks in his career, making the defensive effort stick out on a night Boston surrendered 138 points.
“If we do that, Sam is getting those, ain’t no excuse for anybody else,” Brown told reporters in Indiana. “I bet you if Sam is bringing that energy to the floor, a lot of times we’re going to be winning those games. We just have to match that energy as a yet. Sam set the tone with a couple big plays defensively and offensively made some big shots for us as well.”
Hauser’s performance is building over some stellar momentum that came with some surprise starts just ahead of the All-Star break. In his last seven games, he’s averaging 11.6 points while shooting 52 percent from field and 52 percent from 3. His +8.4 net rating in that stretch is also the second-highest mark on the team.
With Hauser finding his stride once again after an ugly midseason slump, there appears to be an easy solution for Mazzulla to keep consistent opportunities for the likes of Hauser, Grant Williams and company: Taking his foot off the gas when it comes to the starting five. Horford (34 minutes vs. Pacers) in particular is someone who shouldn’t be pushed in a regular season game against Indiana with a loaded bench behind him. To this point, Mazzulla has showed little inclination to reduces the minutes load on his starters.
As the stakes rise in the race for the No. 1 seed in the Eastern Conference, the temptation for Mazzulla may be to ride his top talent to homecourt advantage but working in the likes of Hauser and others more should be a priority. Grant Williams only played six minutes on Thursday night and Mike Muscala was a DNP-CD entirely. Mazzulla isn’t going to have room to play all three guys on nights this team is healthy but preserving Horford while building the confidence of guys like Hauser could go a long way towards keeping this group healthy and at its best for the postseason.
Tough choices are to come in the final 22 games of the regular season but ultimately these will be good problems to have for Boston’s coaching staff.