Forsberg: Celtics' Hauser dilemma among January storylines to watch


January tends to be the NBA's most boring month. The sizzle of Christmas Day matchups are in the rearview and it's a slow crawl to the trade deadline/All-Star combo in February tends to crank up the excitement, especially as the NFL season reaches its finish line.

The Celtics will play 15 games over the first 28 days of January and cross the midway point of the season in the process. But minds will naturally be wandering ahead. 

There will be some spikes in interest, particularly on Thursday nights this month. Boston visits Luka Doncic and the Dallas Mavericks this week, treks to play the surging Nets next Thursday, then hosts the Golden State Warriors in another playoff rematch on January 19.

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But some nights, like a Tuesday visit to Oklahoma City, will challenge the team's ability to find motivation. With that in mind, here are four things we’re keeping our eyes on in January:

1. Sam's slump

Sam Hauser's slump has now stretched over a month. In the 16 games since November 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 early in the year, Hauser is minus-45 over those 16 games. He’s held a positive plus/minus in only six of those games, although four of those have come since Christmas Day.

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

But January could be a bit of a make-or-break month. Brad Stevens has said that it’s his job to explore all opportunities to upgrade the roster before the trade deadline and noted how he must determine what’s a blip and what’s real. Is Hauser’s month-long downturn just a slump as he adjusts to increased defensive attention, or something more concerning?

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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 14 December games, opponents shot 39.4 percent against him, or 6.4 percent below expected output per the NBA’s defensive tracking data. That included opponents shooting 41.5 percent on all 2-point shots, or 11 percent below expected output. 

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

Hauser needs to find his offensive mojo in January and tighten up his defense, or it might force Stevens to more aggressively explore wing options whom the team can trust more in potential playoff minutes.

2. All-Star Joe?

We know Jayson Tatum and Jaylen Brown are almost certainly headed to Utah for All-Star Weekend. It feels highly unlikely that the Celtics can muscle a third player invite given the talent throughout the conference. The only All-Star drama for Boston: Will interim coach Joe Mazzulla and his 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 owns a one-game lead over the surging Nets at the moment, with the Bucks and Cavaliers lingering 2.5 games behind.

Boston getting its coaching staff to the All-Star Game would be a remarkable story considering the late-summer happenings that led to Ime Udoka's suspension. It would be quite the nod to a group that has managed to keep some sense of normalcy and helped guide Boston to a fast start at a time when the wheels could have easily come off this thing.

Mazzulla is enduring some of the same bumps that every first-time head coach tends to endure. He hasn’t been perfect but we’d suggest that he’s more often than not pushed the right buttons. Those who come unhinged when the team hit a rough patch seem to forget that Udoka had plenty of concerning moments at the start of his rookie campaign before really finding his voice and pushing his team as part of its second-half surge.

3. Bring back the double big?

When will Robert Williams III rejoin the starting lineup? That’s been maybe the hottest question in Boston since his return. The Celtics' core starters -- Tatum, Brown, Marcus Smart and Horford -- have been excellent while running with Derrick White as the primary fifth starter. That group has a +15.6 net rating in 242 minutes together, the third-best mark in the NBA among high-volume five-man pairings.

In most other situations, there would be little reason to tinker with what’s working. 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 simply feels like the team has to get back to it at some point.

That Williams III is infusing much-needed energy and defensive intensity each time he touches the floor only stokes those double-big flames.

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The Horford/Williams III pairing has played only 31 minutes together but the results have been encouraging. Most notably, Boston has posted a defensive rating of 91 in that span. That’s a super small sample but still notable that it’s 19.6 points per 100 possessions lower than Boston’s defensive rating for the season, which already ranks 7th in the NBA.

Given Boston’s lack of pure size, there will be an understandable desire to stagger Horford and Williams III minutes. And the bigger hurdle could simply be waiting for Williams III to be able to handle a bigger workload as he works his way back from offseason knee surgery.

But we’re super intrigued -- even if it unfolds simply in late-half bursts in the infancy -- to see how that group trends and when the team might ultimately get back to it at the start of games.

4. Tatum's second-half surge

It feels somewhat preposterous to suggest that there’s another level that Tatum can ascend to given how good he’s been through the first half of the season. Alas, history suggests that he saves his best basketball for the second half of the season.

It was a 51-point outburst in late January last year that lit the fuse for both Tatum and the Celtics as a whole last season. While he’s firmly cemented himself in the MVP conversation with his early season play, a late-season spike would certainly aid his cause, too.

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

Our biggest curiosity is with Tatum’s 3-point shot. He’s at a career-low 35 percent through 35 games played. That’s a slight dip 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 of his potential output if he gets that 3-point shot going in the second half. He started off the season at 40.8 percent on 8.2 3-pointers per game in October, but has slowly faded, including shooting just 33.3 percent on nine 3-pointers per game in December. He went 0-for-4 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 over his final 20 games. That included a sizzling 44.7 percent for the month of March.

Can he do it again? And what might it mean for both his MVP chances and Boston’s playoff seeding?

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