Sam Hauser’s fall, Joe Mazzulla’s All-Star push among the best Celtics story in January

January tends to be the dullest month in the NBA. The sizzle of Christmas Day matchups is in the rearview mirror, and slow progress toward the trade deadline/All-Star combination in February tends to add to the excitement, especially as the NFL season winds down.

The Celtics will play 15 games through the first 28 days of January and cross the season midpoint in the process. But minds will naturally be wandering forward.

There will be some peaks of interest, especially on Thursday nights this month. Boston visits Luka Doncic and the Dallas Mavericks this week, travels to play the rising Nets next Thursday and then hosts the Golden State Warriors in another playoff rematch on Jan. 19.

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But some nights, like a Tuesday visit to Oklahoma City, will test the team’s ability to find motivation. With that in mind, here are four things to look out for in January:

1. Sam’s Depression

Sam Hauser’s depression has now spanned over a month. In the 16 games since Nov. 30, he’s shooting 33.8 percent from the floor and 28.1 percent beyond the 3-point arc. Once dancing among the NBA’s plus/minus leaders earlier in the year, Hauser is minus-45 in those 16 games. He has had a positive plus/minus in only six of those games, though four of those have been since Christmas Day.

Our panic meters at Hauser have been relatively low. Shooters go through bad streaks. The second-year forward has also projected confidence throughout his years, an encouraging sign for any young player.

But January could be a decisive month. Brad Stevens has said it’s his job to explore every opportunity to improve the roster before the trade deadline and pointed out how he should determine what’s a mistake and what’s real. Is Hauser’s month-long slump just a slump as he adjusts to increased defensive focus, or something more worrisome?

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While teams continue to try to take advantage of Hauser on the defensive end, his advanced metrics have been encouraging. In games on December 14, opponents shot 39.4 percent against him, or 6.4 percent below expected performance based on NBA defensive tracking data. That included opponents shooting 41.5 percent on all 2-pointers, or 11 percent below expected performance.

Still, there has been an uptick in scoring against him in isolation. Hauser has defended the third-most isolates on the team this season (only Al-Horford and Grant Williams have managed more) and is allowing a modest 1 point per play with opponents shooting 54 percent (21-of-39) against him in those instances. However, a turnover rate of 14.3 percent is among the best on the team.

Hauser needs to find his offensive mojo in January and bolster his defense, or he could force Stevens to more aggressively explore forward options the team can rely on most in potential playoff minutes.

2. Joe the All-Star?

We know jayson tatum Y jaylen brown they will almost certainly head to Utah for All-Star Weekend. It feels highly unlikely the Celtics could force a third-player invite given the talent throughout the conference. The only All-Star drama for Boston: Will interim coach joe mazulla and your staff be in Salt Lake City?

The team with the best record in each conference near the start of February sends its coaching staff to All-Star weekend. Boston has a one-game lead on the surging Nets right now, with the Bucks and Cavaliers 2.5 games behind.

Boston taking its coaching staff to the All-Star Game would be a remarkable story considering the late summer events that led to do udokas suspension. It would be quite a nod to a group that has managed to maintain some sense of normalcy and helped guide Boston to a fast start at a time when the wheels could have easily come off this.

Mazzulla is enduring some of the same bumps every rookie head coach tends to. He hasn’t been perfect, but we suggest that most of the time he pushes the right buttons. Those who freak out when the team hit a rough patch seem to forget that Udoka had many troubling moments early in his rookie season before really finding his voice and pushing his team as part of his second-half surge. .

3. Bring back the big double?

When Robert Williams III return to the starting eleven? That has been perhaps the most burning question in Boston since his return. The Celtics’ main starters — Tatum, Brown, smart marcus and Horford, have been terrific while running with Derrick White as the No. 5 starter. That group has a net rating of +15.6 in 242 minutes together, third-best in the NBA among high-volume five-man teams.

In most other situations, there would be little reason to play with what works. But Boston’s starting lineup last season with Williams III in place of White was such a wrecking ball, posting a league-best +24.6 net rating in 443 minutes, that it just seems like the team has to do it again. sometime. .

That Williams III is infusing much-needed energy and defensive intensity every time he touches the pitch only fans those double flames.

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The Horford/Williams III pairing have played just 31 minutes together, but the results have been encouraging. Notably, Boston has posted a defensive rating of 91 in that span. That’s a very small sample, but it’s still notable that it’s 19.6 points per 100 possessions below Boston’s defensive rating for the season, which already ranks seventh in the NBA.

Given Boston’s lack of pure size, there will be an understandable desire to stagger the minutes of Horford and Williams III. And the biggest hurdle might just be waiting for Williams III to be able to handle a bigger workload while he recovers from offseason knee surgery.

But we’re super intrigued, even if it just plays out in late-mid-infancy bursts, to see how that pool evolves and when the team might finally get back to it early in the games.

4. Tatum’s surge in the second half

It feels a bit ludicrous to suggest there’s another level for Tatum to rise to given how good he’s been in the first half of the season. Unfortunately, history suggests that he saves his best basketball for the second half of the season.

It was a 51-point outburst in late January of last year that ignited both Tatum and the Celtics as a whole last season. While he has firmly cemented himself in the MVP conversation with his early-season game, a late-season spike would certainly help his cause as well.

Maybe even starting as soon as Thursday’s visit with Doncic and the Mavericks.

Our biggest curiosity is in Tatum’s three-point shot. He’s in the bottom 35 percent of his career in 35 games played. That’s a slight drop from last season (35.3 percent), but still well below his career average of 37.9 percent.

Tatum is already averaging 30.9 points per game, so it’s scary to think about his potential performance if he lands that 3-pointer in the second half. He started the season shooting 40.8 percent on 8.2 three-pointers per game in October, but has slowly faded away, including shooting 33.3 percent on nine three-pointers per game in December. He went 0-for-4 from beyond the arc to start the new year in Denver.

Last season, Tatum shot 32.9 percent on 3-pointers before the All-Star break and then 41.5 percent in his last 20 games. That included a sizzling 44.7 percent for the month of March.

Can you do it again? And what could it mean both for his MVP chances and for Boston’s playoff berth?

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