By Brian Robb, CBS Boston
BOSTON (CBS) -- The Celtics are more than a quarter of the way through the 2016-17 season, but they are still searching for a healthy rhythm after a 12-9 start. Injuries are partially to blame for the team's inconsistent play, but they don't account for the lackluster defensive performances and inept rebounding we've seen with a full roster over the past couple weeks.
Brad Stevens continues to experiment with different lineup combinations to find a proper rotation, but one of the few consistent bright spots for him since mid-November has been power forward Jonas Jerebko. The 6-foot-10 Swede is shooting a scorching hot 68 percent from the field and 75 percent from 3-point range in his last 11 games. Spacing the floor has always been a strength for the stretch four, but he's been doing more than that for Stevens over this latest span.
Jerebko's defensive rebounding percentage (22.1 percent) is the second-best number on the team since Nov. 16, and his defensive rating (96.6) has been elite as well. Those kind of numbers signal that Jerebko has been an effective two-way player, which is why I suggested the idea of Stevens starting him in the place of a struggling Amir Johnson last week.
Stevens and his coaching staff had similar thoughts this past Monday night when they gave Jerebko a start against the Houston Rockets. The decision made sense on a individual basis since the Rockets stretch bigs were a terrible matchup for Johnson, who only played four minutes in the defeat.
After an ugly offensive start to the game though, the new-look starting five played some of the best basketball of the year for the Celtics in the third quarter, erasing a 10-point deficit with strong defense and capable shooting all of the floor. The presence of Jerebko gave the offense more room to operate and that's a recipe for success for this team right now.
A deeper look in the numbers indicate that more minutes for Jerebko, particularly among the team's elite players, is a good idea. Offensively, the upgrade over Johnson is substantial. Amir's offensive strengths (efficiency, offensive rebounding) are on the decline this year as he's posting the worst numbers of his career at age 29.
Johnson's overall value to Boston has been mostly on the defensive side of the ball during the past two years, but the 6-foot-9 big man has been inconsistent there as well, primarily due to his lackluster defensive rebounding. He's grabbing just 14.9 of all available defensive rebounds in the last three weeks, a nearly 8 percent dropoff from Jerebko.
The team's on-court success with Jerebko (+6 net rating) compared to Johnson (-1.6 net rating) is quite the considerable contrast. The mobile Jerebko is also versatile enough to defend multiple positions in a pinch, something that Johnson is struggling with at this point in his career.
It remains to be seen whether Jerebko at the four will continue, but it's a shift I feel is worth exploring on a sustained basis for Stevens after what we saw on Monday night. Jerebko can't necessarily be counted on long-term (as we saw with his horrible start to the year) but he's clearly the team's best option right now at starting power forward. Now, it's time to figure out whether he can build some chemistry with the starting five and help the Celtics find some needed consistency as a road-heavy December schedule ramps up.
Brian Robb covers the Celtics for CBS Boston and contributes to NBA.com, among other media outlets. You can follow him on Twitter @CelticsHub.
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