Commentary

Celtics need Jason Terry starting

Updated: December 20, 2012, 1:41 PM ET
By Chris Forsberg | ESPNBoston.com

Fortunately for Boston Celtics coach Doc Rivers, there's no charge for itinerary changes with this JET.

Three games after shifting veteran guard Jason Terry to his preferred bench role, Rivers reeled the former Sixth Man of the Year back into the starting lineup for Wednesday's 103-91 triumph over the Cleveland Cavaliers and suggested that he'll likely stay there until Avery Bradley is healthy enough to return to game action.

Terry, who hasn't been afforded any real chance to settle into his role here in Boston while starting 17 of 25 games, didn't balk at his marching orders. Showcasing again what may be his greatest value, Terry remains willing to sacrifice for the greater good of the team, believing it will pay dividends down the road.

With Boston coming off a disastrous three-game road trip, Terry was willing to do whatever would help the team get back in the win column. He scored 12 of his 15 points in the second half as the Celtics fended off the charging 5-22 Cavaliers in what improbably amounted to a must-win game.

"It's all about the journey," said Terry. "We'll look back upon this, what we're going through now, and hopefully once we're hoisting up that trophy, we'll be like, 'Man, we struggled a little bit. It was tough. Who sacrificed? What happened?' And I just use that as a learning lesson.

"I've been in this league 14 years, I've seen it all. I've seen guys come in off the street off a 10-day [contract] and right away start, and then be cut after 10 days. I mean, it's just amazing. For me, I keep an even keel, stay optimistic, knowing that in the end, it's a process. Once we find the right mesh -- I believe in Doc, I believe in his system, and I believe in the guys in this locker room. So, once we find the right mesh, we're going to get it rolling."

For the moment, the right mesh is keeping Terry's offensive talents with a first unit that also saw defensive-minded center Jason Collins shuffle onto the starting five on Wednesday night.

With Collins allergic to offense, the Celtics needed Terry to space the floor and take advantage of Collins' screening. For at least one night, against a poor opponent that was playing without all-star hustler Anderson Varejao, Boston's changes were enough to right the ship.

Beyond logging an average of six extra minutes per game as a starter, Terry's numbers aren't a whole lot different based on his role. He shoots about the same from the floor (though his 3-point percentage is better off the bench, 42.4 percent, compared to 37.5 percent as a starter) and his scoring average is negligible (11.7 points as a starter; 10.9 as reserve).

Bradley is eyeing a potential Jan. 2 return when the Celtics come back from a four-game road trip, so Terry is likely to start at least five more games to wrap up the calendar year.

[+] EnlargeJason Terry
Mark L. Baer/USA TODAY SportsJason Terry scored 15 points in a starting role against the Cavs on Wednesday.

Celtics captain Paul Pierce isn't complaining. He erupted for a season-high 40 points on uber-efficient 13-of-16 shooting on Wednesday. What's more, when he wasn't hitting one of his 6 3-pointers, he was assisting on all three of Terry's triples.

"[Terry] definitely gives us a lot more space, he's one of the real respected shooters in the NBA," said Pierce. "We're trying to find a rhythm, trying to find a lineup that's going to bring us some consistency, as you can see with these different lineups. Maybe this is it, who knows?"

One thing is becoming painfully clear: The Celtics need to find a way to maximize Terry and Pierce's time together, even when Terry shifts back to a reserve role.

The duo has logged the second-most playing time together on the team (second only to Rondo and Pierce) and are a whopping +72 in 590 minutes of court time (only Pierce-Kevin Garnett and Garnett-Rajon Rondo combos are better at +79). Boston's field goal percentage (+3.2), 3-point percentage (+3.6) all get a boost over the average with Pierce and Terry together on the floor.

Rivers stressed the importance of keeping Terry alongside Rondo in order to facilitate his offense, but Pierce's ability to force the defense to collapse on him led to most of Terry's best looks on Wednesday night.

And maybe that helps explain Terry's woes with the second unit, where he's often been forced to be a facilitator for a group that hasn't shown any sort of consistency. During Tuesday's visit to Chicago, the Bulls blitzed Terry early and often, smothering him when he touched the ball and forcing the likes of Jeff Green and Courtney Lee to step up.

That didn't happen; Nate Robinson ultimately outscored the Celtics' entire bench 18-16 that night.

Boston is trying to figure out how to get more consistency out of its reserve group, a problem that spans much of the Big Three era. Wednesday's lineup swaps could aid that, particularly if Brandon Bass' shooting ability stretches second-unit defenses. The question is whether Jason Collins is a viable long-term option with the starting group. The return of defensive-minded Bradley could entice Rivers to return to Bass with the starting group in January.

As Terry stressed, the Celtics have to figure out their first unit before they can worry about the bench.

"I think we're still searching. We still don't know exactly what that unit is," Terry said of Boston's second-unit woes. "I've been on the second unit. There's been a lot of different guys in and out of that second unit. So, once we get our first unit right, then we can talk about even having a second unit. We've got some talent over there. We've got some guys, that, individually, are good and talented. But again, it's about how we play together as a group."

Right now, that second unit is tormenting Boston. The team is enduring maddening lulls without its stars on the floor, including Wednesday night when the Cavaliers trimmed a 20-point deficit to two before Boston's first unit salted the game away.

Rivers' challenge is getting an offensive-minded bench to play more consistent defense in order to not implode when shots are not falling. Terry's better known for his own offensive exploits, but his defensive spirit can help the second unit and he's the poster child for masking individual deficiencies with pure intensity.

For the moment, his ability to aid the second unit is just going to have to wait. The Celtics need him with the first group and he's just fine with that.

Come January, they can re-route this JET yet again. To Terry, all that matters is the final destination for a Celtics team that remains focused on its championship aspirations despite early-season turbulence.

Chris Forsberg

Celtics reporter, ESPNBoston.com

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